Sensory Guide to the Art Festivals

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Not only a visual feast, Laguna’s three iconic art festivals engage visitors with exciting sounds, scents, tastes and hands-on activities.

By Cheryl Pruett

Sawdust Art Festival
Sawdust Art Festival

The aroma of sawdust mixed with that of fresh, buttery popcorn; the feel of smooth wood on a paintbrush handle, or the curving lines of mosaic glass; the sounds of laughter, accompanied by live music from local bands. We often primarily rely on sight to experience art, but Laguna’s festivals offer a complete sensory experience. This summer, we encourage you explore Sawdust Art Festival, Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair with all five.


Peer Around

Gavin Heath demonstrates glass blowing at Sawdust.
Gavin Heath demonstrates glass blowing at Sawdust.

Sawdust Art Festival is a treat for the eyes as soon as you approach the area, with the village-like architecture at the entrance and the variety of unique, handcrafted stands. “Each booth seems to reflect the personality of the artist,” says General Manager Tom Klingenmeier, who notes that there will be more than 200 Laguna Beach artists represented at the 49th annual festival. About 20 of them are new to the venue this year.

One of the most mesmerizing visuals at Sawdust is the glass-blowing demonstration at the center of the grounds. About 14 different artists take turns breathing life into glass of all colors, transforming it into intricate shapes such as the colorful animals created by Gavin Heath. The sight of the undulating glass, heated so intensely it seems to melt, is one of the most beloved exhibits. In fact, this craft became so popular that glass-blowing workshops were established.

Festival of Arts is also visually impressive from the get-go—even more so this year, when it unveils its new look. “As you walk up to the Festival of Arts, it’s an amazing sight,” marketing director Sharbie Higuchi says of the face-lift. “The new majestic facade is in harmony with the stunning canyon setting and is a beautiful and artistic gateway to the festival and Pageant [of the Masters] grounds. It is a walking promenade that incorporates beautiful landscaping with California native plants, lighting, creative banners, benches, rammed earth and copper walls, and an impressive metal tree cutout art feature over the box office.”

With roots dating to 1932, this year’s edition features 140 juried artists. But there’s more than one way to view the creations on display. For Festival of Arts board member and oil painter Kathy Jones, examining pieces both up-close and from a distance is one of the most significant sensory experiences.

“My work lends itself to sight because it is abstract, figurative and evocative, leaving room for the viewer to bring their own meaning to the work,” she says.

The visuals are enhanced by the variety of pieces, with numerous colors, shapes, sizes and finishes. “The sight of 125 great artists can be sensory overload,” says Mike Cahill, president of Art-A-Fair, where he has exhibited his photography for about 20 years. “There’s so much to see and so many mediums, from watercolor to sculptures, and from oils to jewelry, ceramics, mixed media and more.”

One of the most thrilling spectacles will be the Old Western quick-draw on Sunday, Aug. 9 at Art-A-Fair, where artists will participate in a timed speed competition in various mediums, such as painting and drawing.

While the artwork and special events are spectacular and eye-catching, don’t forget to take in the less overt—yet also meaningful—views, such as Art-A-Fair’s garden-like setting or the koi in the pond by Tivoli Terrace. Unexpected sights can be found around any corner at all of the festivals.


Listen Up

The rhythm of moving feet and the laughter of participants can be heard at one of the newest Sawdust additions, dancing with an instructor, on Sunday nights. In addition to special events like this—and Open Mic Nights on Wednesdays—music ranging from Caribbean steel drums to bluegrass will emanate from multiple venues at Sawdust, including Sawdust Saloon, the Main Deck and the stage next to eatery Thasos Greek Island Grill.

Solspeak performs at Art-A-Fair this year.
Solspeak performs at Art-A-Fair this year.

But Sawdust is also home to more restful tunes, such as the rush of a waterfall that cascades down an approximately 30-foot slope. Also, at Nelson’s Landing, the trickling stream and turning water wheel provide a similar sound.

Sawdust isn’t the only one featuring flowing water. “At Festival of Arts, we have a fountain that you run into as soon as you enter,” says Ron Morrissette, Festival of Arts exhibit director. The blue ceramic fountain by Marlo Bartels welcomes visitors with natural, soothing sounds.

In addition to entertainment and relaxation, audio is used to educate at Festival of Arts. Listen in during Art Talks every Thursday at noon as artists take attendees through the history and inspiration of their work. Each talk focuses on a different aspect of the creative process.

For example, photographer Rob Gage—who last year exhibited a collection of images showing ballerinas in unexpected locations—is scheduled to discuss his new series “Form and Grace” on July 16. In this striking series, Rob once again showcases ballerinas and will discuss how he used Pageant of the Masters mannequins as his muse.


Reach Out

The bronze Water Puppy sculpture at Festival of Arts, created by the late Terry Thornsley, draws children and adults alike to its side. The seal pup positioned on a large rock begs for a pet. “Many families come here each year just to touch the Water Puppy and have their photos taken,” Ron says.

Water Puppy at Festival of Arts
Water Puppy at Festival of Arts

Workshops are the ultimate tactile opportunities, allowing participants to feel the material and equipment in their medium of choice. At Art-A-Fair, Mike enjoys running his fingers over ceramics, noting the texture or the smoothness of a wood-fired bowl.

However, always ask before putting your hands on an artist’s work. Some people, like mosaic maker Margaret Willmoth Jensen, are more than happy for you to experience their pieces this way. “I encourage you to touch the glass and capture with touch what your eye might not see,” Margaret says. “There are lots of intricate shapes in glass. … It may feel soft and smooth, or you can feel bubbles in the glass. Other pieces feel grainy, almost like sand.” She invites visitors to gently follow the grout line in her mosaic glass wall art. “Close your eyes,” she says. “Start at one spot and move your finger over it and see what direction you go. What touching does is [it] connects people to a medium they weren’t sure about.”


Breathe In

Workshops at Art-A-Fair provide up-close olfactory experiences that vary based on your medium of choice.
Workshops at Art-A-Fair provide up-close olfactory experiences that vary based on your medium of choice.

The moment that you walk into Sawdust Art Festival, the scent of sawdust (which is actually emanating from wood chips) hits your olfactory nerve as if it were freshly cut only moments ago. This, coupled with the fragrance of eucalyptus trees scattered through the grounds, instantly awakens your sense of smell.

Tom says this is only the beginning of the aromatic adventure. “When … Fran’s is fired up with fresh popcorn about every hour, the smell drifts around the entire festival,” he says. The same can be said for the stimulating tang of freshly brewed coffee at Espresso on the Go.

While the scent of food may catch your attention first as you enter the festivals, don’t forget to follow your nose as you explore the art. The earthy odor of ceramic pots and paint has a heady quality as you design your own creation. Workshops at Art-A-Fair offer a sensory experience that will stay with you long after you leave; the pungence of paint may linger in the pores, reminding you that you have formed your own masterpiece.

The smell of lead in a pencil drawing can evoke memories of childhood—even if it’s just a slight whiff of a No. 2 as you stroll by. And, if you can’t quite identify the soft perfume wafting up the aisle from an artist’s booth, get closer. There’s something subtle and sensuous about leatherwork that’s a cross between masculine and feminine. Maybe it’s sandals made by Sawdust’s Bob Foster, or a one-of-a-kind purse by Lisa Pallante at Art-A-Fair. Train your senses to pick up the slightest scent of every medium that you encounter.


Savor It

Art, Jazz, Wine and Chocolate events indulge the palate on Thursday evenings at Festival of Arts.
Art, Jazz, Wine and Chocolate events indulge the palate on Thursday evenings at Festival of Arts.

The organic, farm-to-table food from Evan Lewis’ bistro will be one of the first culinary aromas to come your way at Sawdust. In addition to the burst of fresh flavor in the new food concessionaire’s Thai stir-fry—made with shallot, basil, mint, brown sugar and tamari—she has even more indulgent offerings in store. The flavor of the macaroni-and-cheese potato skins is to die for. Choose from garlic, pickled jalapenos, smoked tomatoes and more to top your hot fried potato skin filled with cheesy pasta.

At Festival of Arts’ Tivoli Terrace, the word on the festival street is that the restaurant has the best fish and chips in Laguna. If you prefer Italian, then Gina’s Alfresco will satisfy a craving for freshly baked pizza and more. Perhaps even more enticing are the Xan Confections chocolates paired with Kendall-Jackson wines on Thursday nights at Festival of Arts.

Next door at Art-A-Fair, Tivoli Too is known for its famous margaritas. Indulge in the refreshing taste and the bit of salt that makes you pucker as you lick your lips.

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