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South County Beat: A mosaic of skills makes for great art

Michael Laboon of Shell Beach started as a “hippie potter” in the 1970s in Colorado making typical mug and bowl pottery, after receiving a degree in fine arts at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He next moved to Maui, Hawaii, where he made pots, while also supporting himself as a boat captain in the 1980s.

One day in Maui, some hotel owners asked him to create clay tiles for planters.

“A light went off,” he said. This “opened a whole new window of opportunity.” His career took off as a clay tile artist.

His latest project is on view at Port San Luis.

On the walls of the new public restrooms as one enters the port area are Laboon’s two colorful, large mosaic murals.

Each one depicts historical and current aspects of the Port area, including the Port San Luis Lighthouse, the train that once ran down the pier, Chumash Indian homes and canoe, the trail that will eventually go from Avila up to Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, Morro Rock, a pelican, sea creatures and sailboats.

Port San Luis commissioned him to do the work, but the funding ran out. He decided to drum up some money himself, and went door to door in Shell Beach to ask for donations, telling each donor that they would be immortalized on the tiles with their own named brick.

And so he successfully came up with enough donors to do the job. The donor tiles are in black and surround the large murals, making an attractive frame.

Laboon also designed and installed 40 tiles for a wall at Dinosaur Caves Park in Shell Beach. This was funded by the Dinosaur Cave Preservation Society and includes donor tiles.

These tiles include local flora and fauna, such as elephant seals, mountain lions, bears, and the Chumash Rainbow Bridge.

When the Chumash lived on the Channel Islands, their legend holds that the king created a rainbow bridge to guide people to the mainland.

The San Luis Obispo Aquatic Center at Sinsheimer Park sports another of Laboon’s murals, a three-panel triptych, 10 feet by four feet.

It is near the therapeutic pool and shows a child reading by the roots of a big tree, with a large egret flying nearby.

Laboon calls it “Roots and Wings.” The child is pondering his life, with the roots to ground him and the wings to grow and fly free.

Among private commissioned work that Laboon designs are kitchen backsplashes, entry tiles, bathroom walls and address tiles.

These have included people’s pets, a mermaid with seahorses, Van Gogh flowers, birds and more.

He also makes urns for deceased loved ones, where he will take the ashes and put some into the glaze to decorate the urn.

When first asked to create tiles for the Hawaiian hotel, Laboon stumbled into a profession that uses all his favorite skills.

He uses his fine arts background to draw the designs, then works the clay to create the tiles and also enjoys working with clients to come up with the desired design.

He “likes the whole process” from start to finish.

Laboon can be reached at 773-3187 or pacificarttile@aol.com.

Gayle Cuddy’s South County Beat column appears every other week. Story tips can be sent to Gayle Cuddy at nightengayles@aol.com

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