Chapter 4: Finding Laguna

Although Solomon and his wife were excited to be back in California, the downside of living in L.A. was the smog. The air quality was 70% worse during the 1970’s than it is today, with nearly 200 “smog days” per year. One day, they decided to drive south to find some fresh air, and happily stumbled upon Laguna Beach. They both realized that Laguna was the place to be in order to make contacts in the art world, plus the seaside town was a paradise compared to Los Angeles. They wasted no time in securing a V.A. loan to purchase a single family home at “Top of the World.” This neighborhood had been built just a few years prior, in anticipation of aerospace giant North American Aviation’s move to nearby El Toro. The aerospace move did not come to pass, but the neighborhood remained, and it was an idyllic place to raise a family. It backed up to the largely undeveloped Saddleback valley with walking trails and sunrise views. Georgia was happy that the home was located at the top of a hill, well above any smog that may float down from the north.

Georgia got a job in town working as a bookkeeper for Warren Imports, located on the 1400 block of South Coast Highway between Calliope Street and Mountain Street. It was not the heart of downtown, but the location proved serendipitous. Warren Imports was sandwiched between a dozen different art galleries and an art store to boot, the perfect place for Solomon to make contacts and learn about the local art world. Among these were the Showcase Gallery, Watercolor Gallery, Mabel Speciale Gallery, Back Door Gallery, Challis Gallery (later known as the Esther Wells Collection), Dixie Hall Art Supply and the Art Center Collection of Galleries.

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Below Dixie Hall Art Supply was Lang Photography, owned and operated by a father-son duo from 1958-2018. Rick Lang the younger was the official photographer for the Festival of Arts from 1970-2017, and also photographed artwork for many artists in town. He lived at Top of the World near Solomon and the two formed a friendship that would last a lifetime. While Georgia was working, Solomon enjoyed visiting the galleries on the block and talking with the artists. He was kindly invited to use a space in Showcase Gallery as a studio, an invitation that he gladly accepted. He fell into a routine of planning paintings at night, and working at the studio space during the day when he was not in school. The first Laguna Beach art show he participated in was the 1971 Winter Festival. He won 2nd place which was a whopping $10!

Even though the couple enjoyed living in Laguna, the commute to Art Center College was taking a toll on Solomon. It would take him days to unwind from all the driving. After leaving Art Center early in 1972, Solomon used his skills to attain work in the design field. He worked for several firms including Salas and Mullins, owned by Louie Salas and Paul Mullins. Starting pay was $4.00 per hour, a reasonable wage at the time. He enjoyed the work very much for several months, but it soon became a tiresome routine of extremely long hours, typically 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Even after working his way up to $1,100 per month, the long hours and stress exhausted him and so he decided that it was not worth the strain that it put on his mental health. This experience made him consider the prospect of making a living by doing fine art instead of design work.

Adding to the strain, Solomon’s cousin was in the picture. He saw Solomon’s talent as an opportunity, coming up with one get-rich-quick scheme after another. He promised to put Solomon on a salary and said he would make sure that all his expenses were covered, but instead he often borrowed money from the young couple. Business proposals ranged from selling Solomon’s paintings at cocktail parties to having him design pre-packaged lunches. None of the far-flung ideas paid off, and chasing these schemes cost Solomon plenty of time and money, much to Georgia’s chagrin. When money was tight they would ask for repayment of the loans, but were always told it “wasn’t possible right now.”

Georgia also disliked the stress that design work brought into the house. She encouraged her husband to focus on fine art and believed in his ability to be successful doing something that he loved. Solomon recalled later, “If it wasn’t for Georgia, I’d be designing toasters.” She told him to forget the million bucks, forget designing next year’s door handles, and just paint. He took her advice and began showing his fine art at Showcase Gallery, and continued participating in Laguna’s Winter Festival. Georgia reflected in her journal, “Dave realizes he must, for his own satisfaction, do only carefully planned fine art, regardless of sales.” This new direction led to critical acclaim and a happier state of mind. After two long years of ups and downs in the design business, Solomon transitioned into fine art. He began exhibiting his work each summer at the Art-a-Fair. The first couple of summers brought a few sales, but were nothing to write home about. In her journal, Georgia affectionately referred to the gig as the “Art-a-Farce” or “Art-a-Flop.”

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Nevertheless, the show provided Solomon with some experience in selling his work and talking with clients, often bringing his humor into the transaction. When a potential buyer remarked that he would have to “think over” purchasing a painting of a ship in a stormy sea, Solomon told him that if he waited until tomorrow, the storm would be over. The buyer laughed and pulled out his checkbook.

In March 1972, Solomon was accepted into the Festival of Arts. Still working at Salas and Mullins but with a better schedule, he managed to find enough time to complete a nice collection of “real” paintings for the Festival. July 13th of that year was a day that would go down in history. Solomon started the summer by selling all of his paintings on the opening day of the Festival. He sold three to various buyers, and four more to a buyer from Wyeth Art, then based in Nashville, Tennessee. The Wyeth buyer, Mr. Fowler, also commissioned an additional three paintings to be completed by the time he left town the following week. Solomon’s experience in art school and the design business had taught him how to meet deadlines, and he completed the commissioned work in time. The impressive sales validated Solomon’s desire to paint full time.

Solomon and visitors at Festival of Arts

Solomon visits with guests at the Festival of Arts. Photo courtesy of Doug Miller

His fellow exhibitors were astounded at the quick sell out, but many said that they could understand why Solomon’s work proved so popular. His paintings that year featured ships and stormy seas, a combination of loose washes with detailed brushwork that truly compelled viewers. The work was exceptional. The entire summer was a huge success, bringing in an income of over $5,000 – enough to pay the mortgage for an entire year.

At the Festival, he met many local artists and became immersed in the fine art scene. Fellow exhibitors became close friends, with weekly potlucks on the Festival grounds and an array of practical jokes and other escapades between pals. He exhibited at the Festival from 1972 to 2000, and from 2002-2005. In 1973, Solomon’s work was also being shown at the Palm Springs House of Fine Art, where it was “flying off the walls.” He could hardly paint fast enough to keep up with demand. His opening reception was attended by Rock Hudson, and John Wayne also visited the gallery. There is no mention of sales to celebrities, but David and Georgia enjoyed seeing Mr. Hudson at the show.

Though painting full time was his goal, design work added to the family’s income. With a few years of experience under his belt, Solomon accepted freelance projects on his own terms, charging $250-$500 per day. He thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of this new lifestyle: Setting his own hours and working on the projects that he enjoyed. Things were looking up when Georgia gave birth to their daughter Gaylen in October 1973.