Festivals of Inspiration

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Explore Laguna’s three art festivals and pageant through their history, intricate details, fun facts and not-to-be-missed events.

By Vicki Hogue-Davies

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Pablo Picasso once called painting another way of keeping a diary. When Laguna’s first artists began recording the town’s history on their canvases, they surely had no idea how strongly their brushstrokes would reverberate through the decades and inspire the future. The artistic tradition that began here more than 100 years ago lives on through the Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Fair, Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, which attract thousands of visitors each year. In this special festival section, learn more about the festivals, their histories, their art and artists, and how you can be a part of Laguna’s artistic legacy through classes, workshops and other educational opportunities.

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Decades of Art Exhibition

Laguna’s art festivals instill loyalty in exhibitors. The longest exhibiting artists at Sawdust Art Festival and Festival of Arts have shown their work at those events since Lyndon Johnson was president.

Sawdust artists Nikki Grant and Dion Wright started at the festival 47 years ago when the show was new. Nikki works in twisted wire jewelry and Dion creates welded metal sculpture. In 1967, watercolor painter Jacquie Moffett set up her booth for the first time at Festival of Arts.

“The things I enjoy most about exhibiting there are the artists’ community that develops over the summer and the feedback from the public about my art work,” Jacquie says. She laments the changes over the years. “The ’60s and ’70s brought a lot of excitement to the art world and now I see a lot of ‘safe’ sameness,” she says.

Sculptress, painter and etcher Angie Whitson joined Art-A-Fair in 1976 and is the longest exhibiting artist there. She appreciates the visibility the festival has given her. “At Art-A-Fair you never know who will come through,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for the festival I wouldn’t be where I am today. I have had just an incredible career.”

A Hollywood Fan

Veteran actor Joe Mantegna, known for his work in films including “The Godfather: Part III” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and TV shows such as “Criminal Minds,” loves the Pageant of the Masters. He first attended in 1981 with his friend and fellow actor, Michael Tucci, when Joe was working on a play about Leonardo da Vinci.

“We’d heard about this show in Laguna Beach where people dressed up like paintings and they did ‘The Last Supper,’ ” he recounted when he hosted the pageant’s gala benefit in 2004. “We figured, ‘what the heck.’ I was blown away and since then have returned many times with my family.”

During backstage visits over the years, Joe says he felt the pride and enthusiasm of the volunteers.

“I’ve been on a lot of sets, but to see this army of volunteers working … behind the scenes, and having a great time, that’s something you have to see to believe,” he said. “And what’s it all about? Putting on a show that proves art has a place in everybody’s life, that it’s fun, and that it’s important.”

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Permanent Art Collection

FoaNorth preserves the more than 1,100 works in the Festival of Arts permanent collection, including painting, sculpture and photography. The impetus for building the facility came in the form of two significant art donations to the Festival of Arts, according to Pat Sparkuhl, Festival of Arts Permanent Collection specialist. In 1991, avid collector Lorna Mills donated 100-plus art pieces; and in 2004, longtime festival exhibitor Stillman Sawyer donated his entire photographic collection and the funds to maintain it.

“At this point in the [facility’s] development, we have the infrastructure that safely stores the artwork in a secure environment,” Pat says. “We have begun a comprehensive review of the artworks to determine which culturally significant works need conservation.

“Our future intention is to have a facility that houses the art collection, has the ability to present artwork in a gallery-like setting and loans out works to museums and institutions presenting historical exhibitions,” he adds. A resource center containing archival material related to pageant and festival history is also in the works.

Some of the collection’s artwork is displayed at foaSouth, a small gallery space on Coast Highway. “We have been exhibiting artwork directly from the permanent art collection,” Pat says.

How is a piece of art considered for the permanent collection? The collection committee reviews the proposed piece and determines its cultural relationship to the Festival of Arts or cultural significance to the surrounding region.

Arts Economy

Perhaps not surprisingly to many locals, the arts are a major contributor to the local economy. A recent study by Americans for the Arts that looked at fiscal year 2010 discovered that the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated more than $49 million in economic activity. Spending included $27.7 million by the nonprofit organizations themselves and another $21.4 million in event-related spending by their audiences.

The summer art festivals are major draws to the city, attracting an estimated 485,000 people each season. Festival visitors pay entry fees, dine, sleep in local lodgings, shop, park, use public transportation and generally spend significant amounts of money during their visits. Festival officials estimate.

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The art festivals and pageant enlist nearly 800 volunteers and paid workers to help them run smoothly each summer.

Sawdust doesn’t use volunteers from the public but hires staff during festival season from the local schools and community. The festival hires a grounds crew, security personnel, information booth assistance, retail help and artists to assist Sawdust’s exhibiting artists with art education and demonstrations.

Festival of Arts uses volunteers to lead tours of the art exhibits and to help with art workshops. The Pageant of the Masters seeks hundreds of volunteers of all ages and sizes each summer for the show. No acting experience is necessary, but the ability to stand still for 90 seconds is crucial. A casting call goes out early in the year for prospective volunteers to come to the Irvine Bowl Park, where they are measured and photographed. This year, more than 1,200 prospective actors turned out. The pageant also seeks behind-the-scenes volunteers to help with wardrobe and makeup, serve refreshments and more. Paid ushers and people to rent out seat cushions, sell programs and staff the gift shop are also needed at the pageant. At Art-A-Fair, the volunteers are the artists themselves. As part of exhibiting, they are required to work a six-hour shift each week to ensure the show runs smoothly. The show doesn’t seek outside volunteers.

that the three summer events generate approximately $1.5 million in sales tax for the city of Laguna Beach each season.

Become an Exhibitor

Each of the summer festivals has its own specific requirements for acceptance. Sawdust Art Festival exhibitors must live in Laguna Beach full-time. Festival of Arts accepts artists from Laguna and surrounding cities; a specific list of zip codes in which prospective exhibitors must have lived for at least one year is available on the festival’s website. Residency is not a factor for Art-A-Fair artists, who can live locally or internationally.

Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair are both juried shows, and artworks go through rigorous review processes. At Festival of Arts, jurors score applicants based on the quality, intention and content of their art, excellence in the use of design elements, facility with their chosen media, professional presentation and more. The Art-A-Fair jury looks for “excellence in conception, execution and presentation, with the expectation of high levels of creativity and technical competence.”

Although not a juried show, Sawdust applicants are expected to present their work to organizers for approval. Final exhibitors for the 200 booths are selected by lottery. “The number of consecutive years an artist exhibits in the show determines the number of lottery tickets that artist receives,” says Cynthia Fung, marketing director at Sawdust. “The lottery numbers determine the order in which the artists choose their booths on Booth Pick Day, which is mid-May.”

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The Big Picture on the Theme

Each year, Pageant of the Masters wows audiences with its art in living pictures centered around a specific theme. Curious about how that theme chosen?

“I am always looking for ideas and potential themes,” says Diane Challis Davy, pageant director. “I am inspired by art shows, museum shows and current events, but ultimately it is an intuitive process and I get a gut feeling. I always run it by Dan Duling, pageant scriptwriter, and Sharbie Higuchi, marketing and public relations director, for feedback, but ultimately it is my decision.”

What did her intuition tell her in choosing “The Big Picture” as the theme for this year?

“Being a big movie aficionado, I thought it would be fun to put up a show of artwork that inspired movie art directors and production designers,” she says.

Diane has already selected a theme for 2014, but will stay mum on her choice until July, when she will reveal it to the pageant’s volunteer research committee. LBM

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