Elizabeth Turk's work is sold by Christie's auctioneer Charlie Adamski at Saturday's fundraiser at the Laguna Art Museum. (Eric Stoner / February 8, 2014)

If you live in Laguna Beach for any length of time, you start to take art for granted.

Everywhere you walk, there is art. Every weekend, there is some new exhibit. The byproduct of all this art is a certain amount of complacency.

That's not good if you're the Laguna Art Museum.

You might not realize this but the museum is not flush with cash. Of all the non-profits in town, it is often the most precarious financially, according to records. Its expenses have exceeded revenues for the last several years, which is why Saturday night was important.

It was the annual auction and fundraiser. At $125 a ticket, it meant you had to dress up, but it is always a fun event and serves a purpose: helping keep the museum open. It ended up netting the museum about $120,000.

The fact is it takes a lot to keep art alive and interesting. And on Saturday there was a lot of interesting.

There was the work of street artist Shepard Fairey, famous for his 2008 Obama "Hope" poster. There was a compelling portrait by artist Don Bachardy of Santa Monica, who is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Portrait Gallery in London, among others. One of Bachardy's most notable works is the official portrait of Gov. Jerry Brown in the California State Capitol Museum.

And standing next to her work, there was a smiling newcomer, Elizabeth Turk, auctioning one of her new "X-ray Mandala" works.

This was the first time Turk's work was shown in Laguna. Raised in Newport Beach, she now lives in Atlanta and joins a long list of artists who arrive under the radar. Unless you are a savvy collector, you probably don't know her name.

But in 2010 she received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the "Genius Grant."

I'm going to let that sink in for a second. Google it.

It's a big deal. Because she showed "exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work," she joined the elite ranks of people like Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Max Roach and David Foster Wallace. Most recipients are scientists of one sort or another: quantum astrophysicists, parasitologists, neuroscientists.

It was Turk's interest in science that led her a year later to land a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. While working at the Smithsonian, she became fascinated with the beauty of natural shapes.

The museum gave her access to highly specialized equipment and scientific specimens.

"It was incredible," she said. "The freedom to play ignited my curiosity and my creativity. I took full advantage. Not knowing where the research would lead was an extraordinary element of the opportunity."

Over the course of a year, she accumulated various images and experimented with different layering techniques until she finally hit upon something that resonated with her.

"They are so familiar but they are very new and unique at the same time," she said. "It's a different path, but I found them so lovely."

Turk's work mirrors the recent theme of the Laguna Art Museum: combining art, science and nature. It's a way to embrace the legacy of California art, local plein air and the fast-paced change of science and technology.

It's a complex reality not lost on Turk, who is a new breed of artist — visual, to be sure, but deeply rooted in scientific discovery and illumination.

"I think Southern California is uniquely situated for reflection on art, science and nature," she said. "You're overwhelmed by nature out here. You're overwhelmed by the Pacific. You're overwhelmed by the possibility. That to me is exhilarating."

So for one night in Laguna, Turk stood in front of her work, excited and humbled. Her enthusiasm was infectious and showed once again why art should not be taken for granted.

When the live auction started, her work sold within seconds.

One artist, gifted in art and science, quietly helping a local museum forge ahead in new directions.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.