Sawdust Reinvents Itself as an Outdoor Marketplace During Coronavirus Restrictions

Photo courtesy of Sawdust Art Festival

The entrance of the Sawdust Art Festival, which has been recast this fall as the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace, with social distancing and mask regulations in place.

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the birds chirp in Laguna Canyon, as the shade from the eucalyptus trees creeps in and slowly covers bright spots filtering in from the shifting autumn sun.

Like they have for 54 years, the Sawdust Art Festival artists are showing off and selling their paintings, sculpture, jewelry, clothes, photographs and prints on three acres of woodchip-covered grounds at 935 Laguna Canyon Road.

While the nearby Festival of Arts and Laguna Art-A-Fair remain dormant because it’s off-season and the coronavirus pandemic caused massive cancellations everywhere, the Sawdust is actually happening this fall on weekends.

But now it’s called the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace, and quite a few things are different this time around.

The configuration contrasts noticeably with previous years. There are fewer booths, and much more space in between booths. Only 46 artists at a time are displaying and selling their wares, compared to 200-plus during the summer festival. Admission has been limited to 25% capacity, or about 500 guests at one time.

Printed and hand-painted social distancing signs are everywhere on the grounds. Hand sanitizers are situated at several stops. Face masks are required for all artists and visitors, and additional signs remind folks of this requirement.

RICHARD CHANG, Voice of OC

Hand-painted signs at the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace remind visitors to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Art workshops and classes have been canceled. Kids’ activities have been nixed. Musicians play on two stages, not three, and dancing is not allowed on the main stage. Eating tables and chairs are spaced six or more feet from each other.

It’s a COVID-19, socially distanced version of the Sawdust, but it’s pretty much the only art festival going in Orange County, and perhaps Southern California. So participants and visitors are making the best of it.

“It’s better than no show at all,” said Star Shields, a graphic designer and mainstay of the Sawdust Art Festival. His first year at the fest was 1974, and he has shown continuously from 1984 to the present.

“It’s not as festive as the summer Sawdust, but I’m fortunate to be here in this same spot for four weekends,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, quarantines and social limitations have had a devastating impact on artists throughout the country and the world.

Artists in Laguna Beach — founded in the early 1900s as an art colony — are no exception. They’ve had a very difficult time getting through this year, when festivals have been canceled, museums and galleries have been closed, and art has not been deemed as an “essential” good or exercise.

“It was very, very hard,” said Brynne Cogorno, a Sawdust artist for 12 years, of the lockdown summer when the standard, annual Sawdust Art Festival did not occur. “I started making face masks. I’ve always been a chameleon. I did custom design services for people. But I really live for doing Sawdust economically.”

Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 20

Where: 935 Laguna Canyon Road

Tickets: $10 for adults; children are free

Contact: (949) 494-3030; sawdustartfestival.org

The artists who run the Sawdust tried to make it happen during the summer, in a safe and socially distanced sort of way. They worked hard on plans with the city and the state.

But the governor and state’s changing standards — and the lockdowns and social gathering limitations — made the summer show impossible. However, Sawdust artists and employees continued to work with the city of Laguna Beach, and finally the festival, recast as the “Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace,” was allowed to open Sept. 19. The theme this fall is “Groove in the Grove.”

“We’re thrilled to announce the opening of our Outdoor Marketplace,” said Monica Prado, president of the Sawdust board of directors, in a September statement. “Local artists can begin to rebound from the economic impact of the pandemic, and it’s a wonderful way for friends and neighbors to safely shop and socialize on our beautiful grounds.”

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said in a statement: “I want to commend the Sawdust board of directors for their creativity in developing a plan that will allow a great Laguna tradition to continue this fall. Our community was founded by artists and the marketplace will provide an opportunity for many local artists to sell their art to support themselves and their families.”

Artists at the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace said the first couple of opening weekends were well attended, and people were excited to do something local and social in a safe manner. They also came to support the artists, many of whom rely on the Sawdust for a substantial part of their annual incomes.

RICHARD CHANG, Voice of OC

The space between booths and along walkways has been expanded at the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace, to ensure social distancing.

But attendance dipped in subsequent weekends, the artists said, and was especially slow the weekend right before the national elections. The Sawdust artists are hoping that people will start coming back as the holiday shopping season arrives.

All this hasn’t dampened the spirit of the Sawdust, however, especially among artists returning after a long lull.

“I’m excited to be back. I was feeling really lost,” said Cogorno, who runs Backward Prints and sells printed T-shirts, sweatshirts, cards, masks, kitchen towels, stickers and more.

“I’m really stoked to be here, and I just feel very happy,” she said. “I miss being here on these grounds, and I miss Sawdust. You know I’ve never had a summer off; I never had that. I always wanted one, and it was bittersweet because you don’t realize what you miss until you don’t have it. But definitely I miss these grounds, and I miss the interactions with people. Because you can make art as an artist, but artists make art to share it with the world.

“I can make art at home, but I’m not getting the feedback and the interactions. I feel like I have more one-on-one experiences with customers here, and more visibility.”

A View From the Inside

Rachel Goberman is a longtime Sawdust artist and Laguna Beach resident, and serves as a board member of the nonprofit organization. She runs Rachel’s Jewelry, which has been a mainstay at the Sawdust Art Festival for years.

RICHARD CHANG, Voice of OC

Rachel Goberman stands in her booth, Rachel’s Jewelry, at the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace. She and all the artists wear masks and practice social distancing.

“This is my full-time job,” said Goberman about her jewelry craft. She also organizes the entertainment that’s performing during the Outdoor Marketplace. “There’s a reason why we do this. I don’t make jewelry for myself. I guess I kind of do, but it’s for people.”

Goberman said the artists and the organization could have just allowed the cancellation of the Sawdust this year, like dozens of other art festivals across the state and country. But the Laguna artists didn’t want to give up.

“This is what we need to do,” she said. “The artists need us, and the community needs us too. Just the fact that we’re open is good. It’s so incredible to think that there’s nothing else going on.”

Goberman said there was a palpable feeling of excitement and euphoria during the opening weekend of the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace.

Things have quieted down a bit since then, but the marketplace is still a draw since most of the other art shows like it are closed. (The Irvine Fine Arts Center will hold its 38th annual Holiday Faire on Saturday, Nov. 14, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Orange County Great Park.)

But what do visitors of the Outdoor Marketplace have to say? Andrea G. of Huntington Beach, who declined to provide her last name, returns year after year because she’s a fan of Sawdust artist Jamie Bichler’s jewelry and leather work.

“I am very happy with how much spacing there is, because this has always been a more condensed space,” she said. “And I feel really safe here — everybody is wearing masks. This has been an incredible experience.

Photo courtesy of Sawdust Art Festival

Visitors check out artwork at the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace. All visitors and artists must wear masks at the event, which runs on weekends through Dec. 20.

“It’s nice to get out some place that has all of this community vibe. This is the only social thing I have done since March. I had a fantastic day picking out my favorite things to adorn myself with!”

Andrea G. said she’s been coming to the Sawdust for 10 years, approximately since Bichler started showing her work there.

“I am so impressed. I did not expect there would be this much spacing. They worked so hard to make sure that this was safe, and that artists could come, and that this could be a safe community event. The only other thing I do is go grocery shopping, and I don’t even go inside.

“I cannot say how awesome this is, especially this year.”

A Different Point of View

Not everyone is thrilled with how things are going at 935 Laguna Canyon Road this autumn. Of course, when you’re dealing with more than 120 artists rotating in and out through the course of the event, you’re bound to get some complaints about booth location or attendance.

RICHARD CHANG, Voice of OC

Space in between booths at the Sawdust has been expanded, and walkways and aisles are wider for social distancing.

Artists who do not get a booth during a particular weekend — or have chosen to opt out due to health concerns — can show their work along the Sawdust’s southwestern wall. Customers can take their picks to the sales shop near the entrance and purchase those items there. Payments from sales are sent to the artists by mail every week, said Franky Duschane, the Sawdust’s director of marketing and public relations.

Karen Petty has been a Sawdust artist for 30 years. She said she’s happy to be part of the Outdoor Marketplace, but she’s still frustrated with how the governor and the state handled art exhibitions and sales during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“You can go buy junk at Walmart but you can’t come look at our art? Those decision makers are coming back as … lizards. I don’t like lizards. They made a decision that art can’t be viewed, like art was going to give you COVID. Who made that decision? That was so sad!”

Petty said the past weekend (Oct. 31-Nov. 1) was pretty slow for her paintings and prints. “I think we need a little more advertising,” she said.

No Winter Fantasy This Year

Traditionally, the Sawdust transforms into Winter Fantasy each holiday season, starting with the third weekend of November and usually lasting until the weekend before Christmas. But there will be no Winter Fantasy this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In other words, there will be no Santa Claus, no town square, no carolers, and probably no snow.

“All that high-contact stuff with Santa and all that” is not going to work, said Bichler, who also serves as vice president of the Sawdust’s board of directors. “It’s definitely going to be a little more low-key than previous years. Our Santa is awesome, but he’s high risk. He’s definitely older. He’s a high-risk Santa. It’s been the same guy since I’ve been here …. The focus is really on the artists and trying to help the artists this year.”

Instead, the Sawdust will continue in its current Outdoor Marketplace format, on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through Dec. 20.

Individual artists will probably decorate their booths, and handmade, holiday-themed items will almost certainly be for sale.

“I’m looking forward to November and December and kicking butt,” Bichler said.

Her fellow artists at the Sawdust undoubtedly feel the same way.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].