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Laguna Beach

A reality-bending tour inside the surrealistic mind of muralist Timothy Robert Smith


“What if we could observe the phenomenon of modern theoretical physics seeping through the cracks of a fast-moving metropolis?” writes Timothy Robert Smith. “Try to visualize Black Holes, Quantum Tunneling and Alternate Dimensions in daily life. Picture the past, present and future existing together with branching timelines that show alternate versions of each moment, repeating into an infinite feedback loop.”

Thought experiments like these drive the imaginative engine of Smith’s artistic mind. He plays with reality and perspective in every painting. At once Smith offers you the worldview of a worm, then whisks you high in the sky. He pulls you down deep holes. From far below, the world above looks different. He invites you into mirrors, behind an iPhone’s screen, to the tops of buildings and even inside an arcade claw machine. 

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Courtesy of Timothy Robert Smith

“In the Event of All Things to Be or Have Been Being Now,” oil on canvas, 60” x 72” (2014)

“In the Renaissance, artists worked together with scientists, astronomers and mathematicians to create models of the universe,” he writes. “As science and technology changes our understanding of the universe, the maps we use need to adapt.” Maybe Smith is as much a cartographer as an artist. 

Smith’s public murals are peppered around our town. Three appear at LCAD, one at Laguna Beach High School, another at the Main Beach Starbucks. Ripple Effect was installed this week at 328 Glenneyre (at the corner of Mermaid Street). It’s painted along the exterior wall of Amar Santana’s Broadway and across from Harley’s. “It takes viewers on a journey through the unravelling of time and space to tell a cinematic story about Laguna Beach,” Smith said in his Artist Statement. “Up becomes down and the pathways are infinite.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Smith oversees his LCAD students as they install “Ripple Effect”

Smith sat down with me to talk about his inspirations and obsessions, how he views the world and other artists (mostly cinematic) he idolizes. 

I also took the opportunity to catch up with Faye Baglin of the Laguna Community Art Project (CAP), the organization that facilitated the installation of the mural. I discovered what it takes to ensure our town benefits from public art and the unique challenges this project posed. Both conversations have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The imaginative universe behind Smith’s artistic eye

Stu News: Creativity often expresses itself early. Were you one of those kids who lived inside your own head?

Timothy Robert Smith: I grew up as an only child and there weren’t a lot of kids on my street, so I had a lot of time to invent my own worlds. I started by making collage. I’d get the Sunday newspapers and cut up all the advertisements. I was really into that. 

I first picked up a paintbrush probably around high school. I started doing these paintings of my collages and got into that for several years. Then, finally, I wanted to make my collages look more realistic. That’s when I went to graduate school and learned the tricks of making things believable, but still kept this imagined creative reality.

SN: Were you playing with perspective all the way along? 

TRS: I didn’t get into perspective until later. I was playing with bizarre juxtapositions – things that shouldn’t be together. There’s always been a sense of humor in my work. My early childhood collages were very political – but from a naïve point of view. They were about consumerism, “the system” and how the individual fits into that world. I listened to a lot of 1980s hardcore political punk rock, like Dead Kennedys. All these things entered into my art.

SN: Did you study physics in college? Because there’s so much play with augmented reality – with space, time and perspective in your work. 

TRS: Thank you for saying that. That’s what I’m going for, but the truth is I have no knowledge of physics. I’m a physics fan. I’ve read a lot on the subject. In fact, I just finished a book by Kip Thorne about understanding the science behind the movie Interstellar. He was a physicist that contributed to everything you see in the movie. I’ve attended a lot of lectures, I watch a lot of TED talks and I try to read a lot of books on physics, but I’m just a fan and not an expert. 

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Courtesy of Timothy Robert Smith

“Round About,” oil on canvas, 48” x 60” (2019)

SN: So much of your work takes me back to my own childhood, wondering if I could dig a hole to China, travel through time or tele-transport myself. It feels like you were able to maintain that child-like awe about the world.

TRS: I’m very into that philosophy. Before I was into physics, I was really interested in Transcendental Meditation. I read a lot about the nature of reality being this lucid thing. I liked exploring the idea that reality is very similar to a dream and the rules of physics are always changing. Especially with modern physics, superstring theory and all these philosophies about what’s actually happening. 

I look at reality from two different perspectives – modern science and also from a Zen Transcendental Meditation point of view. I think a lot about reality. What’s actually happening? What is time? Is time a real thing, or is it something we can control? 

I’m interested in being able to bend the rules of time and space. Of course, there are examples of that happening. People are quick to demystify it and justify it with some new scientific theory. But I think things are fluid. Everything can change. It’s hard to talk about. I’m much better at illustrating these ideas than talking about them.

SN: They’re hard concepts to express. But I’d personally have a much harder time drawing them, so hats off on accomplishing it. 

TRS: When you talk about the nature of reality, it’s easy to get hippy dippy sounding. Everything suddenly connects back to this big circle of peace and love. That may be true, but Hallmark greeting card slogans aren’t that interesting. It’s a challenge to make the interconnectedness of reality sound fresh and interesting. I’m definitely better at drawing these ideas than I am at talking about them.

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Courtesy of Timothy Robert Smith

“Waiting Room,” oil on panel, 30” x 24” (2014)

SN: I’m fascinated by your installation, Revised Maps of the Present. (To view, click here.) So many of the ideas we’re talking about are at play in that work. What inspired that? What kinds of things were you thinking about and how did you even begin to approach this project?

TRS: Thank you. That’s probably one of my favorite pieces to date. I’m hoping to do a permanent version of it, or a permanent public sculpture that has the same feeling. 

You know, I’m always trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible with art. I started getting really trippy with my two-dimensional paintings, going into these other realities. One day it hit me that I was stuck in two dimensions. What if I took these concepts and pushed them into the realm of 3D? 

The first model I built was just out of cardboard and markers. I scribbled it out fast just to get the ideas out of my head. I set up different parts of this train. When you look at the train from one angle, it all lines up. It looks like one continuous, connected wall. But there’s actually depth between the two walls. I discovered a cool optical trick I could utilize. 

I spent almost a year developing this concept. It was my secret baby project. I took it to Greg Escalante, who was a big supporter of my art when he was alive. He connected me to the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster. They gave me three rooms in the museum and one year to build it. I’d never done an installation. I’d never done anything three-dimensional. But I knew my concepts were going in that realm. 

I measured the space and called up everyone I knew – sculptors, LED light artists, video artists, musicians. I wanted to make this multimedia, crazy show. I had a lot of help from friends and then it happened. 

I want to do it again as a permanent installation in the middle of a city where people can walk through it. I don’t want to give away too many ideas, but I envision a mural and a sculpture at the same time. If you stand in one section, everything lines up. In another section, everything lines up again, but you’re experiencing a different reality. That’s the future of my art.

“Revised Maps of the Present” (2018) is an interactive installation through three immersive rooms allowing the viewer to experience a labyrinth of warping perspectives

SN: What can you say about the meaning behind it?

TRS: It’s taking reality and expanding it into other dimensions. What if one day you’re walking down the street and run into this path you’ve always been on, but you realize you’re tuned in to a different frequency. There’s another path that looks almost identical, but just slightly different. 

Similar to a maze, it’s this labyrinth of daily reality, but it’s expanding. You see things in a hyperdimensional level. What would that look like? That’s the main concept. Then I used a lot of optical tricks and panoramic stuff. 

In the second room, the elevator doors open and you walk into the train station. There are actual seats that come out and allow you to sit down beside a mannequin. But you’re inside an infinite train that goes on forever in every direction. It’s a hyperdimensional bubble. That’s the concept.

SN: It’s almost like you reverse-engineered virtual reality. You created VR in real life. 

TRS: Exactly. And it was before I ever saw any VR stuff. Virtual reality was happening, but it wasn’t in my sights, so I didn’t know a lot about it. Of course people showed me as I was designing and building it. But the original idea came before I ever experienced any virtual reality.

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SN: Let’s talk about the new mural and what inspired it. 

TRS: I’ve been playing around with this design for a while. I wanted to show the floor swept out from under the viewer’s feet, so you see something from an extreme worm’s eye view. From the right of the mural, a jogger is running. His shoe is huge. It’s basically stepping on the viewer. As you move to the left, the floor shifts and you see another character, but the camera has moved up. It’s still looking a little from the worm’s angle, but a bit more normal. Then as we shift farther to the left, it becomes a typical straight-on view. 

The whole inspiration with this piece was an attempt to perfect that floor-shift thing. I’ve played around with floor-shifting, but for this one I wanted to hyper-focus on large characters, work on that floor-shift and make it as believable as possible. 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Ripple Effect” plays with perspective and floor-shifting, including characters who are larger than life when viewed from below and juxtaposing them against characters seen straight on in smaller proportions

SN: I like the idea of playing with different points of view all at once. That seems important in today’s divided world.

TRS: Exactly. Stepping outside your mental framework and opening yourself up to other people’s points of view allows you to have better conversations. 

Everyone is so divided and has strong opinions, which is sometimes necessary. But it’s also necessary to understand where other people are coming from. That gives you perspective. If you’re too embedded in your own worldview, you’ll get stuck. Pull back and look at the whole of reality. You’ll get a clearer picture.

SN: Can you say anything about your process? How do you even begin with a project so huge? 

TRS: I have a scribble sketchbook. I scribble out my ideas very fast. Then I’ll do 20 or 30 thumbnails until I finally like something. I tweak it, moving someone to the left or right, until it’s the perfect design. Then I do another version that’s a bit better. Sometimes I’ll skip that step and go straight to a mock-up painting. 

I once did a tunnel mural in Toledo, Ohio. There are all these people walking, then there’s a boat and a car in the city. It’s this wavy perspective where everything is twisting and turning. So I built a mock-up tunnel in my garage. I wanted to walk through this potential mural, but a smaller version of it in my home studio. It’s a lot of extra work, but it helped me get the job and it helped me visualize my concepts and how they would look when they were realized. Because the left plays with the right. Everything that happens in one place will affect what happens in another and vice versa. So I had to build it. I couldn’t do it in Photoshop. 

I set the sides of the tunnel up on easels so I could walk through. I even included this corporate advertisement in there because I couldn’t get rid of it, so I wanted to experience it as I was planning things out.

SN: How do you scale it? It looks hard to go from a sheet of paper – or even a tiny tunnel – to an 80-foot wall. Especially when many of your images are twisted and upside down.

TRS: Right. I have to paint upside down. I do use a projector. I can’t use a projector when I’m teaching, so we have to figure out all the proportions and do it by freehand. It takes way longer.   

When I do my large stuff, that’s all the projector. But the projector only gives you an outline. You still have to do all the blends and shadows to make everything work. And some of those projector lines are wrong because you can’t always get the projector in the right spot, so sometimes they’re a little angled and off. You have to compensate for that.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

LCAD students first use broad rollers to apply base layers of paint. Then they do the fine art of blending the image into the background. 

SN: Your work feels more inspired by cinema than static visual art. Can you talk about your artistic inspirations? 

TRS: Totally. I love trippy cult movies and avant-garde cinema. I’m thinking of Alejandro Jodorowsky from the ‘60s who does those trippy films. I love Paul Thomas Anderson. Magnolia is probably my favorite film. I love movies where the camera moves in these surreal ways to break down the barriers between the characters, so one person’s reality merges with another person’s reality. That’s what I’m interested in.

And I love that fluid nature of individual consciousness. One person’s thoughts can become another person’s thoughts. 

SN: You must have loved Charlie Kaufman films like Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 

TRS: Definitely. I love Charlie Kaufman. I also love Stanley Kubrick. 

SN: What about movies like Inception and some of those reality bending films that are dreams inside of dreams? 

TRS: I used to watch those kinds of movies. Now I’m more into the psychological stuff because true science fiction hits a little too close to home. That’s how my mind works anyway, so it doesn’t get me going as much as a Charlie Kaufman story. But I loved Interstellar and Doctor Strange was visually exciting to watch. I’m not that into superhero stuff, but the way they bent reality was so well done.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Smith used his baby as a model for the mural

SN: What advice do you give to young artists entering the field?

TRS: Compartmentalize these two things: (1) sustainability; and (2) goals.

Sustainability is being able to continue doing what you’re doing and survive, pay rent, eat, etc. If you can’t eat, you can’t paint. Do what you have to do to survive. 

But, at the same time, don’t lose your goals. And do anything you can to combine the two. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s really the only way. (Even Bryan Cranston did cringey commercials, but hopefully at the same time he was sharpening his skills, getting to know the industry, etc.).

SN: Excellent advice. You’ve clearly accomplished both. Best of luck with the installation.

TRS: Thanks! I hope people enjoy it.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

This is Smith’s fifth public mural in Laguna Beach. Other works can be seen at LCAD, the Laguna Beach High School and Main Beach Starbucks.

The scalable synergy between Timothy Robert Smith and Laguna’s Community Art Project (CAP)

Smith’s talents proved a perfect fit with CAP. Board member Faye Baglin shared the backstory behind Ripple Effect, the multi-step process required for its installation and what the mural brings to our town.

SN: I’ve run into several Laguna residents who aren’t even aware of CAP and its mission. Can you bring us up to speed?

Faye Baglin: CAP’s primary mission has been the placement of murals and sculptures on private property sites in town to supplement the public property installations done by the city’s Arts Commission. Going back to our incorporation in 1998, CAP has been fortunate to enhance the community with more than 20 sculptures and murals, in collaboration with private property owners and artists. Our projects are funded by member donations and the lodging establishments through the city’s BID Grants. 

SN: What did the process look like for getting Ripple Effect approved?

FB: Putting a project like this mural in motion takes several steps and a good measure of luck. For CAP, the first step was identifying a prominent downtown wall located on private property and seeking permission from the owner to place a mural on their wall. The huge white wall adjacent to the city parking lot on Glenneyre at Mermaid called out for improvement. We located the names of the owners and sent an old-school postal letter to request their permission. Lucky for us, the Miller family responded the following week with a phone call. 

Turns out, the owners and tenant Amar Santana had often pondered how they could improve the appearance of their wall. As avid supporters of the arts, the owners gave their approval and we began the process of finding an artist to create a mural. 

CAP invited several local artists to submit proposals for a mural at 328 Glenneyre and reviewed the concepts with the owners. Among the interesting and diverse proposals, Timothy’s design captured the most support with his creative perspective in an uplifting colorful scene covering the entire wall. Add to that the fact that he would complete the mural with help of LCAD student mural artists, the project was off to a strong start. We appeared before the Arts Commission with Timothy in August 2021, by Zoom of course, and received unanimous approval. 

SN: Were there any big challenges or other obstacles to overcome?

FB: The big hurdle was finding an offsite location for Timothy and helpers to start work on the mural, painting it on polytab mural canvas sections. Fortunately, our friends at the Festival of Arts generously allowed us to use space on their grounds for the team to work from September through December. The project was then relocated to LCAD to coincide with Timothy’s Mural Art Class which started in January. It’s been a pleasure working with Timothy throughout the process and recently meeting the students as they put the final touches on the mural onsite. 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Timothy Robert Smith poses on a ladder with his LCAD students as they installed “Ripple Effect” earlier this week

SN: Have you heard any reactions from LCAD students?

FB: Emily Bertucci told me that she has been eyeing this wall for years, as she gazed at it from across the street while having lunch at La Serena Grill. Her fresh enthusiasm to participate in this project is echoed by the other dozen talented young mural artists whose work will be enjoyed for years to come by the community and visitors. 

SN: What else should we know about Timothy?

FB: What I haven’t said is that Timothy Robert Smith is what we call a “big deal” in the world of mural art. His creative talent is matched by his humility, and we’re grateful and lucky to partner with him on this magnificent project.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Three of Smith’s murals can be seen at LCAD. This one is visible from the street and accessible from the LCAD parking lot.

A dedication ceremony for Ripple Effect will take place on Monday, March 21 at 5 p.m. The public is invited to meet the artist and LCAD students to celebrate their work. You can learn more about Smith and his work at his website by clicking here.

For more photos by Jeff Rovner, see slideshow below:

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