Irvine’s Great Park stretches across the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. It covers more than a thousand acres and sports a bright orange helium balloon where visitors can get a bird’s eye view of Orange County. There’s a carousel for kids, and now a new attraction: an arts complex.
Orange County artist Jorg Dubin wandered around the El Toro base after it closed, helping out as some friends photographed the landscape. Dubin says he remembers driving through this vast space sandwiched between the Santa Ana Mountains on the east and the coastal hills on the west.
"I just got my camera out and took pictures of four directions from where I was standing," Dubin says, "and just got back in my truck and went on about my business."
Those photos provided the inspiration for Dubin’s first paintings of the air base. "The first two that I painted of the base was this painting here which has got a long runway vista. It’s got some of the markings still from some of the runways. And those things always intrigued me because I didn’t know the meaning of those things."
Dubin’s the inaugural artist at the Great Park Gallery. His vibrant oil paintings take in aerial views of runways and hangars and close-ups of pilots. Many of the images highlight the grand scale and geometry of an air base.
He says his paintings document the transition of the landscape from its former role as an air station into the Great Park of today. "There was this real sort of tipping point where you know nature really was reclaiming the runways, the buildings, and everything was abandoned basically. So it really was kind of a special time to be out here because it’s never going to be that way again."
The recent opening of the Great Park Gallery is part of the new Palm Court Arts Complex. One part of the complex will house a studio for artists in residence; the gallery will host free exhibitions.
"This building – the art gallery – was one of the former squadron buildings, and there were actually five squadrons, I believe, here at El Toro," says Beth Krom. Krom chairs the Orange County Great Park Corporation.
Krom says the gallery will feature art with relevance to the region. Dubin’s paintings fit the bill because they document the history of this piece of land. They also give a nod to the air station’s role in building the modern Orange County.
"Southern California’s growth was very much fueled by World War II," Krom says. "Just to put it in perspective, before this space was commissioned the population in Orange County was under 200,000. Today it’s over 3 million."
One of those 3 million residents, Valerie Ubert, enjoys the quiet as she slowly walks through the gallery with her mother. "It’s a 'Mommmy and Me'-type afternoon. I got rid of the kids and my husband so we thought we’d check out the Great Park, so it’s actually our first time here."
Ubert likes the paintings – and especially likes that the exhibition is free. She says the arts complex gives her hope that the far from finished Great Park has a grander future.
"I think it will become as famous as, you know, a newer version of New York’s Central Park, but on the West Coast," Ubert says, "so I’m real excited about that."
Dubin’s art provides a meeting point between the potential of the future and the memories of the past. "You know, I’ve had some already interesting conversations with just very random guys who were pilots back in the day and had their stories about, you know, either passing through here briefly or actually being stationed here," Dubin says. "And when I hear that and they look at these paintings and it brings those memories back to them, it makes them more special to me, too."
A few of those pilots will be sharing their memories as part of an oral history project the gallery will host next year. Dubin’s exhibition, titled “Plane Air Power,” runs until October 16.