Life Is Beautiful, Indeed

By Natasha Ganes

At the end of October, I attended the three-day Life Is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas, NV, and can now say with all certainty that it’s my new favorite music fest. Only to refer to it as a music festival is not entirely accurate, considering it’s so much more than that and what makes it brilliant is not the music at all, but the art and atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, the bands were great (The Roots, Jenny Lewis, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, Fritz & the Tantrums, The Flaming Lips, Broken Bells – you get the idea), but what really makes this festival work is the scene’s overall groovy vibe and street art courtesy of worldwide urban artists.

If Life Is Beautiful stands out from similar events, it’s with good reason: the festival was created as a community program designed to connect those who wish to spread inspiration, raise awareness on social issues, and share the overall contagious hope that life really is beautiful.

Here is a place where the glitter body art is free, the food is so good the specialty trucks have lines a half hour long, babies wearing headphones are strapped to the chests of every fifth guy in the crowd, toddlers in fairy costumes weave in and out of the bathroom line, everyone you bump into is your new smiling friend, you can watch live televised cooking demos given by famous chefs in between bands, the Dos Equis-sponsored masquerade lounge gives away scorpion suckers and bacon/cheddar-flavored dried crickets, people dressed as autumn trees wobble around on stilts, and the sides of almost every building are adorned with colorful, life-sized paintings.

I took some shots of a few of my favorite street art pieces from the festival. For more images from the event and information on how to get into next year’s show, head over to the Life Is Beautiful site and found out what makes this festival worth attending.


An Interview with Cartoonist and Illustrator Kelly Duke

Kelly Duke

Kelly Duke

TreeHouse was recently able to speak with cartoonist and illustrator Kelly Duke, whose art appeared as part of the ValleyCrest Art Show we reported on last week (see here for that post). Be sure to keep reading after our interview to check out images of Kelly’s amazing work and learn a bit more about his history and connection to the art world.



TreeHouse: Your work contains a fair number of pop culture references. When you were creating these strips and illustrations, did you primarily use current events as your inspiration?

Kelly Duke: Absolutely. But can think of very few cartoons that don’t rely in some way on cultural references. Note too that my works were all drawn in that period before personal computers and the Internet. Cultural references came from a relatively small number of communal sources such as movies, television, or print media. I could rely on images drawn from those sources being readily identifiable in a cartoon context.


TH: Explain to us a bit about your process in creating these pieces. How did you initially begin? Did you usually work on one piece/strip at a time or many of them at once?

KD: It was far more complicated than that. First of all I was attending college and working part time during most of that period. As such I would have to fit any drawing time into my over-arching work/eat/sleep/study/class schedule. Assignments from The Poly Post would require that I find time to meet a publishing deadline. Fortunately the paper was only twice a week in that era. Post assignments required that I grapple with a theme suggested by the paper or fill space with a work or a montage of works) centered on a theme of my choosing. Lastly, I had to allow for those moments when someone, something, or event struck me as cartoon-worthy and I would need to act quickly before my muse took it away.

My finished copies were all produced on drafting vellum with technical pens. For the strip I would have a pile of pre-made four panel blanks. I would start by sketching ideas on tissue for layout and proportion then refine those through tracing on to the vellum. My first pass on the vellum would use a non-repro blue pen. Then I would ink the final copies. Once the ink was sufficiently dry, I would shade with gray felt-tip art pens in lieu of an ink wash. The technique was clean and easy, but tough on the nostrils.


TH: You’ve mentioned to us that it’s been quite a while since you have created work like the cartoons and illustrations you had on display at the recent ValleyCrest art show. What would get you to return to this type of illustrating now? And if you did start again, what subjects do you think you would tackle?

KD: The prime ingredient would be sufficient time to sit and draw. While art it is not necessarily a perishable talent, one gets rusty and needs to get back into a groove. And I would like to explore different techniques. Understand that I did most of my early works with Rapidograph technical pens. Those pens are really designed for straight line drafting with consistent line weights. They lack the expressiveness of a quill pen or a brush. I would love to have some time to experiment with either of those tools. I would also need to learn how to do a better job of drawing women. I just never got that quite right.

As for inspiration; one cannot help but be inspired, at least in a cynical way, by what passes for celebrity, fashion, conspiracy theories, an over-reliance on technology, perversions of political rhetoric, ethical failings or leadership ineptitude, and a pervasive general indifference to our environment. There is no shortage of material in that regard  I would probably try to resurrect some of my cartoon strip characters, update them a bit, give them an identifiable real world setting, and try to craft some general plot lines around their lives into which I could weave timely / topical humor and cultural references that they could evoke or respond to.


TH: What do you feel is the correlation between your early interest and talent in cartooning/illustrating and the field of landscape design that you chose to make your career? How have those skills come into play throughout your career?

KD: Well, first of all I need to clarify that my career path has been one of a Landscape Cost Estimator. As such, my success is predicated on understanding the designs of others so that I can reasonably estimate what it will cost to build those designs. Having some artistic talent helps me in interpreting and understanding a designer’s intent in the absence of fully developed plans and specifications.

Otherwise, the two fields have not crossed paths much. There are times however: (1) in college I took a class of Landscape Architecture for non-Landscape Architecture majors. The class featured lectures and exercises often led by different L.A. faculty. One exercise in rendering, led by Rodney Tapp demonstrated the difference between shade and shadow which was an epiphany for me that profoundly influenced my cartooning when I switched to gray art markers to add depth to my sketches through shading in lieu of using ink pens and tedious cross-hatching techniques. (2) I occasionally use my sketch techniques to explain construction concepts to designers in a common graphic language.

Beyond that, my cartoons have more often been for my own merriment. If others have enjoyed them, well then that was even better.




Kelly Duke

Kelly Duke

Kelly Duke grew up in the south east corner of Apple Valley, California. The area was then, and remains today, a somewhat bleak patch of the Mojave Desert where, as a youth, he had to make his own entertainment. Duke’s entertainment of choice was art. Largely self-taught, Duke had little formal training beyond occasional public school classes (try finding one of those these days), and eventually a couple of courses at UCLA Extension under respected and prize winning illustrators, Matt Wuerker and Nancy O’Hanian.

Duke considers himself to be a “Closet Cartoonist.” He has sketched and cartooned and played at illustration since his earliest school days. The work posted here is part of the body of work created while attending California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California where he insinuated himself into the staff of the campus paper “The Poly Post.”

Duke confides: “Cartooning accomplished two things in my life. Acceptance of my work by peers increased my self-confidence. At the same time, it also allowed me the security of being able to comment on a broad spectrum of topics in relative anonymity.”

“Cartooning for the Post forced me to take a more structured approach to cartooning and illustration in order to match art to stories and to complete projects on schedule,” says Duke. As for his media of preference, the majority of his efforts have been pen and ink shaded with gray-toned felt art pens. He has occasionally dabbled in pencil and has experimented with scratchboard.

Duke’s day job is to oversee a team of Pre-Construction Cost Estimators and Project Managers at ValleyCrest Landscape Development where he has worked for close to thirty years. “Cost estimating is a very schedule-driven profession, which leaves little free time for art,” says Duke. Nonetheless, the recent mounting of a retrospective of his college work at ValleyCrest Design Group’s annual Art Exhibition has sparked interest in returning to the drawing board.

Other than that, Duke likes long walks on the beach, kittens, poetry readings, classical music, and hot cocoa by the fireside.

Take a Sneak Peak into ValleyCrest Design Group’s Private Art Show

By Natasha Ganes

ValleyCrest Design Group  Art Show in Irvine, CA

ValleyCrest Design Group Art Show in Irvine, CA


ValleyCrest Design Group of Orange County has been keeping a pretty big secret and they’re finally ready to spill it – to a select few, that is. Until recently, the studio in Irvine, CA, operated like any other excellent design company: creating award-winning landscape architecture and master plans for their clientele. Recently though, the firm of 50+ employees decided their collective abilities to create fantastic designs for their clients wasn’t enough, and what started out as a casual conversation between a couple of coworkers turned into an incredible art show with submissions from over 20 employees. Paintings, pottery, sketches, photography, comics, horticulture, furniture – you name it, the employees of ValleyCrest create it.

While it’s no surprise that a team of people who create and design for a living come from artistic backgrounds, what is amazing is that so many of them continue to produce (and often sell) their personal artwork in their spare time. And more so than that – these VC guys and gals are seriously good artists. If their personal works of art are any indication, it’s no wonder they win awards for their landscape designs.

The private art show took place at the end of September and I was lucky enough to snag a ticket in. Take a look below at the images of the works from the show and see if you don’t agree with my assessment on the team’s artistic talents. Fair warning though: this is probably the closest you’ll get to viewing the collection as a whole. While the firm does plan to continue their new art show tradition twice a year in the future, as of right now admission is invite-only and likely to stay that way.


Photography by Jason Clemens


Jason Clemens

Jason Clemens 

A couple of events in recent history have helped shape my budding hobby of photography. First, three and a half years ago I became a father in my mid-thirties and I feel that that defined my focus and outlook on life. Second, last year a friend suggested that I create an Instagram account and I immediately found a vast world of creative, like-minded people sharing the beauty that they enjoyed every day. I slowly began my first foray into social networking and it proved to be addictive while also providing a powerful outlet of creative energy that had been building for decades.

In a little over a year my account has grown considerably and I have been able to share some photos from my past while continuing to explore my surroundings and share pictures from my travels around my home state of Michigan. I have used some editing tools while getting the most from my limited equipment of a point and shoot Olympus and iPhone. I have managed to capture some images that I am proud of while working an awful lot on a career that is not quite as enjoyable as taking and posting pictures all day.

I was thrilled and humbled to learn that an artist’s community sought my contribution to their aesthetic collection as it allows me to expand my audience further and connect with people with similar passions.

You can follow Jason’s work on Instagram at jackattack31011.

An Interview with Artist Mark Jacobucci

TreeHouse recently had the opportunity to chat with artist Mark Jacobucci regarding all of the details that go into creating his paintings. Be sure to keep reading after our interview to view some of Mark’s artwork and watch his painting demonstration video from the Festival of Arts. To see more of his work and upcoming exhibits, visit his website at:


Mark Jacobucci

Mark Jacobucci

TreeHouse: How do you decide what particular landscape or scene you want to paint? Is it simply a matter of appreciation and how its beauty speaks to you or are there other factors involved in your decision?

Mark Jacobucci: It’s simply an emotional connection with a scene encountered during my day and it could be for any number of reasons. I think it is usually the composition and light quality, strong directional lines, contrasting shadows and light, and colors that I am attracted to and feel have development potential.


TH: We understand that one of the first things you do after deciding to paint a particular place is to take photographs of the scene. Take us through the steps of your painting process; where do you go from there? How long does any one individual piece take you to complete?

MJ: I could be driving to and from work, or on a walk or run, at the beach, or on vacation. I take pictures with the intention to look at them later to see if any of them have potential. When reviewing, I might crop the shot to improve the composition, but I rarely do anything else to it.

I used to use printed photos and these were terrible. No contrast or depth, too limiting, not very inspiring. Then I used slides viewed through a viewer or a loupe. But it’s hard on the eyes to continually alternate viewing through a loupe and refocusing on the canvas. And there was wait time involved in making photos or slides. Now, painting directly from the iPhone or iPad, inspiration to painting is instantaneous, and the color and contrast is great.

Completion takes a few hours or several weeks. The time it takes depends on the complexity of the scene and how realistic I want to be. Usually I start out with an intention one way or another and let the style evolve during the first compositional strokes. Part of the Plein-aire style involves “rapidity” because outside you are always racing against the changing light. In the studio I don’t have to race against the light, but I paint as if I did.


TH: You paint in what is known as the “plein-air, alla prima style” within your studio.  Can you tell our readers a bit about that style of painting and why you choose to create predominantly within your studio rather than outdoors or at the scene where your subjects appear?

MJ: Plein-aire is basically “on location” and alla prima means “all at once,” wet-on- wet painting. They are related, but not the same. I am attracted to it because of limited available painting time. I like to work quickly and finish quickly. If I spend too much time on one painting I tend to get bored with it and it becomes work and less play and relaxation. I like mixing the colors right on the canvas, using lots of paint, and painting quickly and spontaneously, allowing happy accidents and unfinished areas to remain in the completed piece. The objective is that the resulting painting looks fresh, spontaneous, exciting, and interesting to look at over and over.

Although I sometimes do Plein-aire, I prefer to work in the studio for a few reasons: first, I am too lazy to pack up all my stuff and get out in the field. It’s a lot do work to go through all that preparation and travel time, which cuts into the actual painting time. Also, I can work much larger in the studio than in the field. When the kids were younger, I could spend a lot of weekend time painting and still be home to do things like go for a bike ride or to the beach. I threw a plastic sheet over the palette and off we went. Then later in the day or evening I could just walk back into the garage and pick up where I left off.

It’s all about limited available painting time and keeping my life simple. I only have weekends to paint, and I really like to exercise (running, walking, and surfing), so I don’t do a lot of other time-consuming things.


TH: You prominently use oils in your work, but have recently started to experiment with acrylics as well. Do you prefer one over the other for specific pieces? Can you explain to us the difference in the way you use them?

MJ: I like both. In high school I used acrylics, in college, oils. When traveling I use acrylics. In 1980 I did a whole series of paintings during a road trip to the west coast using acrylics on canvas. I had one set of stretchers and several precut canvas sheets. I stapled a new canvas on it and used the same stretchers for every session. When the painting was finished it was already completely dry, so I took it off and rolled it up and put it in the back of the car.

Although since 1999 most of my work has been in oils, last year I started using acrylics again – the fast drying time forces me to paint rapidly and more spontaneously. Acrylics are safer to use, with less toxicity and easy clean up. As for technique, my objective is to make the character and quality of the acrylic look just like it’s oil. It’s harder to mix the colors on the painting itself, but if you work fast enough it can be done satisfactorily. The paint typically flattens out on the surface instead of maintaining the dimensional quality of the brush strokes. This takes some getting used to. There are all kinds of extenders and fillers you can buy to make the paint remain dimensional and I have experimented with some of these, but typically do not use them because I’m not yet familiar with how to use them in the best way.

The brand of acrylics I use is buttery like oils and it has much better colors and color stability than what used to be the case. Unlike oils, some acrylic colors shift hue and value a little as they dry. I love the rapid drying, and the permanent quality and stability of the plastic once it dries. There’s another quality to acrylics, which is that besides drying quickly the paint surface flattens out. If a painting has not worked out I can paint a new one right over it. The new one can be oils or acrylic. You can’t really do the same thing with an oil painting unless it’s still wet and you can cleanly scrape and wipe the old one away. And you can’t paint a new acrylic painting over old oil, but you can do oil over acrylic.

All that said, I am planning that my next piece may be oil.


TH: You have attended painting workshops in California and New Mexico, which sounds like a great way for artists to both share and further advance their skills. Have you found that to be true in your experience? And do you find that workshops are beneficial for continuous inspiration and creativity once the sessions are completed and you’re back at home?

MJ: I think it’s a great way to get started, hone your skills, or learn alternate techniques. It’s short, not a major commitment. How long the inspiration lasts depends on how much you get out of it. But on balance, workshops are great. You always learn something new and see another point of view.


TH: You’ve been involved in Laguna Beach’s infamous Festival of Arts for many years now. What do you think it is about the festival that contributes to its long-standing success?

MJ: I’ve been lucky to have been in the FOA for 13 of the past 14 years, and I am happy to say that I will be in next year also. The FOA is unique and successful because of its close association with the Pageant of the Masters. Including the other two festivals, Sawdust, and Art Affair, I think all three art festivals combine their success synergistically by supporting one another. The FOA and Pageant, with their nightly audience of over two thousand viewers every single day during the summer, is wonderful. Being a juried show has its ins and outs and we’ve almost all been “in or out “from time to time. That said, jurying keeps you serious about making the best art you can.


TH: There is much discussed belief within the creative writing world that in order to hone your skill you must write every day. Do you think the same rule applies to other art forms? How often do you work on your paintings?

MJ: I don’t think there are any set rules like “paint every day” or put in “10,000 hours,” but I have learned from a very wise person that if you “practice with purpose” you will achieve good results. The most important thing is to paint when you want to paint and don’t paint when you don’t. That way it stays fun.

I used to be more obsessive about making sure I was always working on a piece or always finishing a piece during a weekend session. But now I am a little more relaxed about it. I tend to paint very quickly, so when I am in the zone I can produce a lot of work in a relatively short time. I’m not trying to prove anything, and it’s important to me that making art remains pleasant and inspiring and diverting.


TH: You mention in your bio that your career as a landscape architect influences your art due to how much they have in common: “one is landscaping with paint on canvas, the other is painting with landscape on the land.”  That is a beautiful sentiment – do you feel that there are other careers you could have gone into that might have influenced your art in the same way?

MJ: In art I actually started with sculpture, which I studied in college. Sculpture was about objects in space. The first time I ever heard of landscape architecture was when a grad student at Harvard’s GSD asked me about placing sculpture in a garden. What he was doing was learning about the space around objects. I found that this was a growing design profession rooted in the real world that encompassed aspects of design, ecology, geology, horticulture, and psychology, and that it worked in scales as large as regions and as small as backyard gardens. Not only that, but you could make a living at it! Imagine how great that sounded to a former art major. That meeting led to graduate school and a professional degree in Landscape Architecture.

I didn’t start painting seriously until 15 years later, while practicing at SWA in Laguna Beach. Also, I took another detour professionally and worked as a program manager for a science company. Since about 2000 I’ve been back to landscape architecture and painting consistently. It’s a neat kind of symmetry in that both endeavors are land based and follow fundamental precepts of design.

Of course painting doesn’t need to be about the landscape, so I imagine if I had gone into a non-design related professional field or stayed in program management, my art work would have taken a much different path. I love all kinds of art and I feel pretty comfortable doing my brand of contemporary impressionism. Maybe if I had been doing something else professionally I would have been a more conceptual artist. In any case, I believe that the need to do art was inside me and that sooner or later it was going to assert itself one way or another. I am excited to be learning something new about art all the time.

If asked, my advice would be if you have a little talent and it gives you some satisfaction, figure out a way to do the art. Do it because you want to do it. But don’t take it too seriously – after all it’s not rocket science.


Watch Mark’s painting demo at the Festival of Arts on YouTube or Vimeo.



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Mark Jacobucci

Mark Jacobucci

Mark Jacobucci has drawn since he could hold a pencil. He studied painting in high school on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and attended Brandeis University for a BA and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, earning an MLA. Early influences include the painters Paul Georges, Paul Brown, and sculptor Peter Grippe, all known in the New York art scene. After receiving his Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture in 1984, Mark came to California in 1985 to work in the profession at an internationally acclaimed design firm in Laguna Beach.

He continued to sketch and draw illustratives for his design projects, then renewed his passion for art by attending life drawing sessions at the Laguna College of Art. Mark also attended painting workshops in Laguna Beach, California and the Fechin Institute in Taos, New Mexico.

Mark’s paintings are primarily landscapes: beaches and coastlines, roads, alleys, and agrarian scenes. Some pieces depict areas that have since been developed or are slated for development. These he considers historical documents. Using strong contrast, vibrant colors, and loose, spontaneous brushwork, Mark paints in the plein-air, alla prima style most often in the studio. His style has a contemporary flair which differentiates his landscapes from plein-air artists of the past who may have painted similar scenes.

He grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and has resided in Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel, California since 1985. To learn more, visit his website at: