John "Don Juan" Forster, Don Juan Avila, and Don J...
John “Don Juan” Forster, Don Juan Avila, and Don Jose Serrano
T. J. Dixon and James Nelson
The 6 life-sized terra cotta busts in the lobby are sculpted in adobe clay and are life-sized busts of early Saddleback Valley landowners. Laguna Hills is built on one of the major land grants developed during the Rancho Era. Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, those who had served in the government or who had friends in authority, were given vast lands for cattle grazing. Three of these landowners were Don Juan Avila, John (Juan) Forster, and Jose Serrano. The 3 men owned Rancho Mission Viejo, Rancho Los Deschos, Canada de los Alisos, and Rancho Niguel, which covered much of the western portion of the Saddleback Valley. Busts of these 3 initial landowners now sit in the alcove to the left of the Civic Center lobby.
In 1862, a drought devasted the valley and the 3 inital landowners lost their properties to the bank, where they were purchased by Lewis Moulton, Richard O’Niell, and Dwight Whiting. These owners used the ranches to raise sheep and cattle. They also grew olive trees, grape vineyards, eucalyptus, and crops such as alfalfa. In the Civic Center lobby, life-size busts of these men sit on the right.
While growing up in the Southwest, T.J. Dixon enjoyed color and loved to paint but frequently found this artistic medium frustrating. At the age of 26, while studying at an art college in Northern England, she picked up clay for the 1st time. “It seemed to come alive in my hands,” she says, “and I knew intuitively what I wanted to create.” She also knew that she wanted to become a sculptor.
In 1991, T.J. began collorating with James Nelson. A native of San Diego, California, Nelson got serious about art while in high school because, he confesses, “It was the only thing that I was good at.” At San Diego Mesa College, he studied with Dixon, and the 2 of them discoved that they spoke the same artistic language. In what Dixon describes as a “total collaboration” that required “a lack of fear and a leap of faith,” they joined their artistic talents and their aesthetic visions.
“It isn’t that there are 2 different visions coming together,” T.J. explains. “We really are one when we design and sculpt.” Jim adds, “In a good collaboration, the trick is to set your own ego aside and let the needs of the project come 1st. When we listen to each other’s ideas, the project develops in a way that we could not have imagined at the beginning–and always for the better.”
Although T.J. and James are frequently asked to collaborate with landscape architects in designing public spaces for universities, hospitals, and municipalities, they are primarily figurative sculptors who create public art–often life sized figures 1st formed in clay and later cast in bronze. T.J. points out that Americans spend billions of dollars every year traveling around the world to seek out and admire “the icons that give us a sense of where we have been and where we are going to as a culture.” She and James have made it their mission to create similar icons for special places that are much closer to home.