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Laguna Beach

Volume 15, Issue 11  | February 7, 2023Subscribe

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Sukhi Dail: Turning seeds of imagination into magical pieces of art 


Thirty years ago, at the end of a long, adventurous journey – one that included leaving India with only $5 in his pocket, riding the Orient Express, teaching and working at Hanna-Barbera studios in Hollywood – the sculptor, painter and lifelong philanthropist Sukhdev (Sukhi) Dail finally settled in Laguna. 

Dail readily admits he’s a nature lover. “I had a friend who lived here, and I was in awe of the beauty of the coastline and the wilderness.”

Residents may be aware of Dail’s work from his public art installation Seabreeze (2015) overlooking Main Beach. “It captures the human spirit, in awe of the beauty,” he said. Although it’s his only public art piece in Laguna, he has created other public art throughout his life. His prototype of a larger work Where is My Forest? took second place in the Laguna Art Museum’s 2022 Art & Nature competition.

sukhi dail closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Sculptor and painter Sukhi Dail came to the US in 1968 

Sprinkled with colorful anecdotes, Dail’s tales of his younger years and travel escapades are as mesmerizing as his works of art. “I grew up in the countryside – farmland – in India and rode my bike 10 miles to high school,” Dail said. “I was an artistic child and liked to fix things. My father was a medical doctor. He wanted me to be a brain surgeon, but every time I saw blood, I passed out. So, he put me in art school.”

After graduating from the Delhi College of Art, Dail took a teaching job at the Teacher’s College. “But I got tired of the repetitive nature of teaching,” he said.

In 1965, his need to create sent him on a journey to Paris to see the French Impressionists. Crossing the forbidding Persian Desert, the car he and a friend were travelling in, ran out of gas. Due to a sandstorm, the road was invisible, and they ended up walking six miles with no water and without finding a gas station. Tired and thirsty, they stumbled upon a settlement that saved their lives. 

sukhi dail house

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The stained glass artwork on the front of his canyon home on Arroyo Drive is from the 1970s 

“We spent a few days in a hotel in Iran, then ran out of money and went to temples, which provided good food and shelter. The car gave out, and we wondered, without money, how would we get to Europe?” 

Unfortunately, the adventure had significantly stalled. They were broke and still in the vicinity of India. 

“I had a cousin in Tehran and he sent me 100 pounds, so we got a bus to Istanbul, to catch the Orient Express,” Dail said. “On the train, we met an antique dealer from Brussels, and he invited us to Brussels. So we stopped there and looked at the galleries and museums – it was a completely different world. Everyone was happy and friendly, and they loved Indian songs. I walked the streets looking for a job, and I got one after three days. I’d say, ‘I’m an artist, are you looking for an artist?’”

“I got a job copying paintings by the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec for the owner of a studio who had night club and wanted the paintings for it, to cover the dance floor,” he continued. “He showed me a book with 50-60 paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec and asked if I could paint like that. In my early days, I had practiced copying masters. I was fast, I could sketch one in 15-20 minutes and color it in two to four hours.”

sukhi dail with elephant

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Dail with his sculpture, “Where is the Forest?” 

If one believes in serendipity or karma, the chance meeting on the train with the Brussels’ antique dealer was fate.

“What is written will happen, we had no plan to stop there,” Dail said. “It just happened.”

In Brussels, Dail attended the Royale Academic Des Beaux Arts in order to have a place to create, as well as to obtain a higher degree in art education. He held his first European exhibition at the Gallerie Romain Louis in Brussels. Upon graduating, he decided to cross the Atlantic for the Americas.

Landing in Canada, he had his first experience in animation. Dail met his late wife of 48 years, Croatian-born Marija, who was in the arts and cinema, in a studio in Canada. “It was love at first sight,” he said. 

He has two daughters, Mirna and Vera and two sons, Mavi and Pixote.

sukhi dail self portrait

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Self-portrait in his gallery 

Marija was the inspiration for Seabreeze, Dail’s public art piece. “When she saw the Taj Mahal, she lifted her scarf over her head in awe,” he said. “Seabreeze represents a mythical spirit who emerges from the sea, happy and graceful. It is something that people can relate to.”

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Working in an animation studio as director provided Dail an opportunity to be invited by Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera, to join their studio in California. That same year, 1968, he found himself in Hollywood. He advanced to the art and animation director in studios like Hanna-Barbera, Warner Brothers and Universal, working on Scooby Do and Fritz the Cat, but continued painting. He also worked with Ralph Bakshi who directed Heavy Traffic, an animated film well before its time.

“We lived in Carmel and owned a condo in L.A.,” he said.

While he was working at the studios, Dail continued to work on his art and his ethereal creations assured him a one-man show at the prestigious Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles.

Sukhi Dail first public artwork

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Courtesy of Sukhi Dail

Dail in India in 1963 working on his first public sculpture

Multilayered process

“When I was a professor back in India, I paid an entire month’s salary for a bag of cement,” Dail said. He uses cement as though it were clay and describes making it into patties.

“Once an idea or a concept appears in my mind, I will start doing some sketches. Out of those drawings I create a maquette 10-20 inches tall, that becomes a working model for a large sculpture,” Dail said. “Now that idea has transformed into a 3D image.”

The large sculpture begins with an armature of steel, and once the desired size and dimensions are welded, then he applies mass wire around it to form the body shape.

sukhi dail blue dress

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

“Untitled” by Dail 

“Now it’s ready to pour the concrete inside the mass wire,” Dail said. “There are again two or three layers of thin concrete mixed with glue, stains and colors applied over it to achieve the desired result. As an artist, I believe one must have an inborn desire to create. All sort of materials can be found on this planet. I have lived and worked on three different continents and worked with any material that was available.”

For a year and a half, artist Roberto Pellecchia has been working with Dail. “We met when Dail had an exhibit at a gallery, and I asked him if he needed help, and he said that he wasn’t working as much as he wanted to,” said Pellecchia. “We’re now at a point we work so well together that sometimes he does the front of the sculpture and I do the back.” 

“Sculpting is very physical,” said Dail. “It’s old-fashioned, a lot of the work is done by hand.”

“Dail doesn’t do a bronze of large statues, he does the original in smaller sizes,” said Pellecchia. “Each one of the large statues is an original.” 

Love of nature

“Souls need to feed on nature,” Dail said. He incorporates elements of the earth in his sculptures and uses powder from three different rocks. 

“Growing up in the country, we could drink the water from the creeks and streams,” he said. “It’s very different now.”

Dail is not one to shy away from strong opinions, particularly about nature and politics – and the damage we are doing to the earth. “The biggest thing is global warming,” he said. “We should not encourage population growth. It’s destroying nature. For every person born, part of the rain forest is chopped down.”

sukhi dail aqua girls

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

One of Dail’s sculptures 

One of Dail’s works in progress was started when the Russians invaded Ukraine. “I was very distraught; freedom was at stake. Three families from Ukraine ran for their lives and are now here in Laguna,” he said.

When he sold his house in Carmel, the buyers didn’t want the statue Libertas, which was on the property. The money from the sale of his statue, $25,000, went to Greater Good Charities, a nonprofit that is on the ground in Ukraine providing temporary shelter and food for displaced families and pets. 

Dail’s philanthropy benefitting wildlife includes supporting Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Arroyo Artists’ Collective

Dail’s lifelong dream has been to open an artists’ collective similar to Montmartre in Paris, a live/work collective. He is hosting his first open studio on December 10, with a portion of the proceeds from any sales going to Laguna Greenbelt and their Wildlife Corridor project.

sukhi dail blurred gallery

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Dail’s gallery at 1685 Arroyo Drive will be open on December 10 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Four other artists on Arroyo Drive will have open studios as well: Sián Poeschl, Troy Poeschl, Monica Prado and Sandy Groves. (They will be open from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.)

Dail’s art practice has always been a part of his life, graduating from a prestigious art school, and now in his 80s, he continues to sculpt every day. His work is collected and he’s enjoyed consistent recognition through gallery exhibitions.

In his creations, there’s no doubt he brings life to his ideals. “You have to love what you’re doing,” Dail said. “Capture the gods, as if the creator can’t do any better. If it’s good enough, someone will say, what do you want? You have a free will, do what you love and if you have something to say, how you say it has to come from you. If you get an idea, you have to be willing to conceive it. Human intelligence is willing to receive, manifest and create.”

Dail’s next project is yet to be determined.

“Ideas are a part of a seed given to us by some spirit, then it’s up to you if you want to ignite it and do something with it. You can’t force a plan. The seed has to be there, then you find it as an artist and as a magician – and ask what will I do with it?”

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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