Orange County Museum of Art's chief curator Dan Cameron stands next to Jay McCafferty's piece "Merge with Dust" in the "OC Collects" show. (SCOTT SMELTZER / December 20, 2012)

For Jay McCafferty, a beloved childhood gift became the genesis of his artistic trademark.

"My aunt gave me a stamp collection when I was a kid, which included a magnifying glass," McCafferty, 64, said. "Wherever I went, that magnifying glass moved to the next tool drawer with me."

An art class at graduate school took McCafferty out into the sun and prompted him to try his hand at an activity that he had enjoyed growing up. With the help of his magnifying glass, he created sunburns on graph paper within a grid pattern.

"No matter what else I created, people's eyes were drawn to that wall piece," recalled the San Pedro resident.

A believer that great art is produced by someone totally engulfed by a craft, McCafferty can spend hours immersed in solar burning, which, for him, is a "magical process."

"There is a predetermined spot where I focus attention and light," McCafferty said. "But what happens after the fire ignites and paper begins burning is free will. It's a 'controlled accident' — a dynamic that I find very profound and interesting."

McCafferty is one of 47 artists showcased at "OC Collects," an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Orange County Museum of Art. Curated by director Dennis Szakacs and chief curator Dan Cameron, the program highlights selections from private modern and contemporary art collectors in the community.

"When people think of Orange County, they don't automatically think 'art collectors,'" said Cameron. "And yet, good collectors don't just belong to this area now. They have been here for a long time. We thought this was a great opportunity to display a cross section of the different collecting approaches here while creating a space where artists, art lovers and collectors can all meet and have an exchange."

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'Based on the best'

"OC Collects," which closes Dec. 30, provides a venue for both established and emerging talent, as well as local and international artists. The paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and text arranged chronologically throughout nine rooms, spanning everything from minimalism to pop art and abstract expressionism to hard-edge paintings, also set up an interplay between artists who are household names and others who are lesser known.

After conducting in-depth research, Szakacs and Cameron contacted and visited more than 20 collectors in the community before narrowing it down to 15, including Anton D. Segerstrom, Mary and Dan Solomon, Marsha and Darrel Anderson.

"Starting out, we told everyone that we wouldn't be able to tell them what we wanted until we saw the very last collector," Cameron explained. "Our oldest work is dated back in the early 1950s, and the newest is from last year, but our choice was strictly based on the best."

McCafferty's "Merge with Dust," one of 85 pieces on display, is a mixed-media creation from 1989. A painter since the early '70s, McCafferty works with multiple, differently colored and shaded sheets of paper layered on top of one another. Wielding a high-powered magnifying lens, he escapes to his home's rooftop solarium and burns holes into the paper in a formalized pattern.

"Staying present — that's at the center of all the work I've done," he said. "There is no such thing as an accident. I control how I react to situations, and that's the focus of my aesthetic."

McCafferty's work was introduced to "OC Collects" by an Orange-based couple, Ann and Bob Myers.

Avid collectors since they got married 25 years ago, the Myerses have traveled to Miami, Madrid, Rome and other corners of the world, amassing every opportunity to delve further into their passion. They have visited fairs, museums and galleries, watched artists produce in their studios and spent time talking to experts.

"Art causes what we call a 'push and pull,'" said Bob, who has attended an art history class at Laguna Art Museum with his wife. "It pulls you in to look at and engage with it and then pushes you out to examine both the back and foreground."

Enraptured by McCafferty's creative trajectory for nearly 20 years, the couple have not only visited his work space, but also own about seven or eight originals. Enthusiasts of all forms of art, the Myerses are keen to support emerging artists, who currently account for approximately half of their collection.

"When we were younger, we started out purchasing in an inexpensive range," said Bob, who, during the last decade, has lent pieces from his collection across the United States. "We weren't motivated to collect because the value of a piece of art would grow or because the artist was famous.

"We followed our hearts and eyes and today, many of those artists are well-known. That's a neat reward for us — the knowledge that we were doing the right thing by collecting what we liked versus what people were telling us to buy."

When the Myerses were contacted by the organizers of "OC Collects," they came on board willingly.

"We feel that we are caretakers of the work," he said. "Eventually, the art will go to museums and institutions. We happen to have it in our home now and feel lucky to be able to enjoy it every day. For this reason, we are very open to sharing our work."

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From postwar to Warhol

Although McCafferty is a favorite artist of the Myerses, his work was not the only one they contributed to the show. When Cameron visited their home this year, he couldn't take his eyes of a 67-by-67-inch gray- and black-hued painting titled "14th September, 1991."

"As a curator, you have to trust your eye," Cameron said. "Drawn to this painting over and over again, I thought to myself, 'That's the most amazing thing.' I was further intrigued because I didn't know who the artist was."

That day, Cameron discovered Southern California-based graffiti maestro Chaz Bojorquez, who earned two spots at "OC Collects" — one courtesy of the Myerses, and one from another collector, Gerald Buck. The curator called him an "incredible master of his materials [who is able to] do this kind of cutting and create these layers — to make the background look like granite and the front seem like three-dimensional titanium."

"OC Collects" also features renowned art idols, including Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, international artists such as Palestinian Emily Jacir and South African Robin Rhode, as well as Southern Californian virtuosos like Eric Orr and Roger Kuntz.

"The closer you get to the art of today, it gets more likely that people are going to throw up their hands and say, 'I don't understand,'" Cameron said. "'OC Collects' shows our audience that the line from postwar modern painting to the conceptually based art of today is an unbroken one. There is no rupture or point where art suddenly becomes too crazy or difficult, which is how it's sometimes thought about."

rhea.mahbubani@latimes.com

Twitter: @RMahbubani

If You Go

What: "OC Collects"

Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, with extended hours 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Dec. 30

Cost: $12 for adults, $10 seniors; free for children under 12 and OCMA members. OCMA is open to the public free of charge the second Sunday of every month.

Information: (949) 759-1122 or http://www.ocma.net