The Incredible Lightness of Artist Randy Lawrence

His creation, Phantasma Gloria in Echo Park, is the visual representation of a life spent searching for light … that perfect California light.

A former set designer for television, commercials and films, Randlett “Randy” Lawrence, built hundreds of “worlds” for the industry—caves and jails, spaceships and diners, a Byzantine Basilica and even Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque. Perhaps his most well-known and prized creation is the “Phantasma Gloria,” a giant mosaic of bottle glass that resides on his property, RandylandLA, in Echo Park. We wanted to know what inspired him to create such a momentous piece of urban art … so we spoke with him and gleaned so much more about the man behind the masterpiece.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?  

Randy Lawrence: After UC, I wrote for newspapers and magazines on the bereavement beat. Colorful stories on the recently dead. That was fun. But I wanted to move the world, not just write about it. So I managed political campaigns. Not fun. I worked for the majority whip in the California State Assembly under Speaker Willie Brown. Also, not fun … not for a callow idealist depressed by the sausage/law making in the capitol. So I left and headed south.

I crossed the border from Calexico to Mexicali and took a train deep into Mexico. To pay for my wandering, I brought back leather jackets to sell in the LA garment district. It was while wandering around Mexico that I realized something. I realized I had to create something beautiful. Something new. It then took me 20 trial-and-error years to figure out how to do that.

Why glass?

RL: One morning I found myself gazing out my kitchen window at a giant cumulus cloud looming over Mount Wilson. Then I looked at a parade of skinny palm trees along the ridge of a nearby hill. Then something strange caught me. A bright bluish-white light blazed bright inside a beautiful bottle on my windowsill … a blue tear-drop-shaped glass water bottle. I bent down to see the light closely. And I saw the sky and the cloud and the entire vast scene I just described, but just four inches high and upside down!

Inside the bottle the blazing light was the sun itself shining in a small luminous sky. I knew then I was looking through a lens. I saw that when you fill up a tear-drop shaped glass vase with water, the fat end turns into a convex lens—just like the lens in our eyes that projects an upside down view of the world on our retinas. In that moment I realized I could make mosaics made of a thousand shining suns. Then, I had to do it.

That was the start of Phantasma Gloria? 

RL: When you know you can make something new and beautiful and glorious, you have to do it. It’s a joy to create such a thing. And it’s a sin not to. When Odysseus enters the underworld he makes his way through a phantasmagoria, a surreal succession of intense visions and spirits. When I realized I’d invented a way to make vast glass mosaics that project a thousand shining suns, I invented the name Phantasma Gloria.

How long did it take to create?

RL: It took 17 years. The first 50 foot glass and water lens mosaic consisted of shining swirls and dancing luminous starfish. I’ve built 22 different lens-mosaics since then—in the same 50-foot span. And I’m not done. Not by a long shot.

How would you describe RandylandLA?

RL: The most magical space on Earth.

What do you love most about what you do?

RL: The thrill … of discovery, the inspiration and the sharing. It all makes my feet tingle. And I’m never gladder than when on my ladder.

What does being a California artist mean to you?

RL: Everything. A strange and terrible history brought most us to this place. When you grow up outside, in the ocean, on the beach, in this magical strip of land between the desert and the sea, a deep love develops … for the people, for the water, for the plants, for the skies, for the sea air making love to the desert air every evening.

And for the light. Especially for the light.

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