The Sea Lion and the Sculptor

The Tale of a Vagabond Bohemian Artist

By Terence Clarke, 2013

Reviewed by Susan C Shea, Marin County author of Murder in the Abstract and The King’s Jar

Each year, thousands upon thousands of eager tourists descend on tiny Sausalito, California, looking for a little fishing and artist-influenced village and finding, instead, thousands of other visitors speaking dozens of languages as they eat ice cream and browse souvenir stores. But the story of Sausalito’s days as a gathering place for artists isn’t a myth, it’s a true history; and a recent book, The Sea Lion and the Sculptor: The Tale of a Vagabond Bohemian Artist, brings a portion of that charming, iconoclastic Sausalito vividly to life. Told often in the words of Al Sybrian, the creator of the famous sea lion sculpture that reigns over the town’s sea front, lapped daily by the tides, this verbal picture of a place where a shaggy guy with grand ideas found a passel of friends is captivating.

Sybrian fought in Europe in World War II, having enlisted as a 17-year old, and decided, on a lark, author Terence Clarke says, to study art, after which he moved to Sausalito. In the early 1950s, the town tolerated a funky community of artists, most of whom were poor as church mice and lived on anything that floated and didn’t leak overmuch. Sybrian described the town in the 50s as having a "self-regulatory character…that is, no awareness of cops and laws," and wrote of the "indifference to money (those who had it gave it)."

Clarke tells Sybrian’s story with wit and deference to other storytellers about that era. The book is studded with excellent photos, many from personal archives that Bill Kirsch, a longtime friend of Sybrian’s and the person who spearheaded this book project, collected. There’s a wonderful oil portrait of Sybrian by Walter Kuhlman, a leading light in the town’s – and the Bay Area’s - artistic history himself.

But the real gems, what makes the book sparkle and pop, what brings Al Sybrian alive and kicking, smiling and disarming the reader again and again, are the illustrated letters and cards from the artist. Sybrian transferred his exuberant visions into the written word, his passion and sense of humor into anecdotes and cartoons, his love and pride in his late-in-life son into endearing reports and blessings. This is a guy you’d like to meet in a bar – and you would have if you spent time at the no name bar in those days, apparently – or build a house with, or resurrect the Anchor Steam Beer operations, as he did with Fritz Maytag.

The story of how the bronze sea lion came to be sitting where it is today, nose up to catch the breezes, is only one tale among many worth reading in The Sea Lion and the Sculptor. This isn’t a slight book only for tourists. This is the kind of book people who love art and those who make it, who relish tales about people who live life their own way, will read with smiles on their faces and at least a whiff of envy for a man who lived exactly as he wished and made some beautiful, lasting art along the way.

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