San Clemente is a sleepy little coastal community in Southern California– a surfer’s paradise made (in)famous in 1969 when then-President Richard Nixon purchased an exclusive property on an oceanfront bluff and dubbed it “The Western White House.” It’s a diverse community now, where McMansions stand adjacent to rambling cottages, and straight-laced folks share a peaceful co-existence with their more eccentric neighbors.
The beach alone is a draw for tourists. The quirky little enclaves call my name. That’s why I found myself driving down one of its charming little side streets last weekend, looking for an art exhibit that I’d only just recently heard about on Facebook. And suddenly, there it was: The Squirrel Project of Los Molinos. And hey, would you look at that? It even has its own hashtag!
Meet the Squirrels of Los Molinos Street, perennial guests on the party scene in San Clemente. They’re gathered now for a Halloween mixer, replete with a cadaver on a surgical slab, black crows supervising the grisly operation, and a vexed squirrel who’s decided to take the future into his own hands. Here, a creative hodgepodge–the outpourings of artist Diana Donaldson’s head and heart. But each scene is stitched together with the others, thematically speaking, thanks to the collaborative efforts of her sister. Should it scare us, that these scenes are inspired by her work at a nearby hospital?
Furry rodents-in-residents, running rampant in an art gallery?
A bit odd, you’re probably thinking. But then again, why not?
If you’re a creative sort, you know better than to question your own artistic muses. You know the risks that come of revealing their magic powers to someone else.
And still, I had to ask: “Why squirrels?”
Diana greeted my question with good humor, but she was careful in her answer. She bought her first squirrel mask in Austin, she said, roughly five years ago. It was an impulse buy, art for its own sake, but she’s since purchased several more. They speak to her, amuse her, inspire, and soothe her. As she listens to cable news–at once anguishing and angering, these days–Diana carves another fluffy-tailed rodent out of clay.
See the paint-spattered shirts, that sparkle in her eyes? Diana loves being an artist. She’s also a warm and engaging storyteller who enjoys leisurely conversations with scheduled guests and random passers-by.
In fact, she granted me an all-access, backstage pass to the studio space behind the diorama. Even better, she allowed me to film a quick tour for readers who might not be local.
Note the multimedia collection: a smattering of other artists’ works, intermixed with Diana and James’ creative endeavors. Note, too, the treasure trove of time-worn tools, art supplies and found objects, that fill the table space and more.
And squirrels, lots of squirrels…under foot, on pedestals, in her mind’s eye and under wraps.
“A lot of people don’t notice them when they pass by,” she once said about her beloved squirrels. “The people that do – they’re my tribe. They always get a kick out of it.”