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Hammers bang and the buzz of electric saws resonates through the eucalyptus-shaded grove at 935 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. Funky wooden booths are being constructed — some already done — and the small, friendly village of artists that comprises the Sawdust Art Festival is once again taking shape in Laguna Beach.

It’s the return of a summer tradition that started in 1967. But after a yearlong hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the return of festival art season in Laguna Beach takes on special meaning this year.

“We’re so excited. Aside from the financial setback (the pandemic) caused, it’s a gathering of the tribe,” said Shamus Koch, a found-object sculptor who’s been in the Sawdust for 23 years. “All that was disrupted — it affected our psyche. Of course, you miss the money. My entire income, other than the rental that I have, comes from the Sawdust summer and winter shows. We forget what a great opportunity the Sawdust is, until you don’t have it anymore.”

In addition to the Sawdust, Laguna Art-A-Fair is returning at 777 Laguna Canyon Road; and just across the street, the granddaddies of them all, the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, are getting ready for their big summer shows too.

So far, preparations behind the scenes and on the grounds are going smoothly, and the hope is, after the state officially reopens on June 15, things might go back to the way they looked in 2019.

But there is still doubt and uncertainty about this pesky and deadly coronavirus bug. With new variants spreading across the globe and the U.S., and reports of younger people catching and spreading the virus, some health officials have expressed doubts about the June 15 reopening date, and whether that might be too soon to drop masks and other restrictions. 

For those involved in the Laguna art festivals, it’s kind of a guessing game as the statewide reopening approaches. Folks are taking a cautious, wait-and-see attitude about how things are truly going to look like come opening day for each festival.    

Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters

The Festival of Arts announced in April that both shows would return this summer. The festival and pageant are two of Orange County’s longest running artistic traditions. The festival was founded in 1932, and the pageant started in 1933. Outside of 2020, the shows have only been canceled one other time, between 1942-45, when the United States was in the throes of World War II.

The pageant, a live presentation of tableaux vivants, or living pictures, takes months of preparation. So workers and volunteers behind the scenes and in the workshops have been adhering to state health and safety protocols, despite the significant decline of COVID-19 infection rates recently.

“The health and well-being of our patrons, artists, staff and volunteers remain a top priority,” festival president David Perry said. “As we prepare for the summer program, our backstage and indoor staff are following our protocols for face mask requirements, hand sanitizers, temperature checks and social distancing whenever possible. We are complying with all current government and public health guidelines.”

In addition, the festival is regularly consulting with the city of Laguna Beach to ensure that the organization implements appropriate COVID-related protocols, Perry said.

“At this point, it’s hard to say how our grounds might look a little different,” he said. “But one thing is for sure, our hope is to create an enjoyable experience for our guests to reconnect with the art and each other.”

As for the pageant, which is titled “Made in America: Trailblazing Artists and Their Stories,” ticket sales and everything else are proceeding under the assumption that social distancing and other health protocols will no longer be in effect after June 15. That means no masks will be required for audience members in the outdoor amphitheater, and pods of people do not have to be separated by six feet.

“However, we will be in compliance with whatever the latest government and public health guidelines are in place when we open our doors and will make seat adjustments if required,” Perry added.

For painter Monica Edwards of Silverado Canyon, she is looking forward to returning to the festival and selling her artwork, which makes up a significant portion of her annual income. But she does have some reservations.

Festival of Arts Fine Art Show

Where: 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: July 5-Sept. 3
Hours: 4 p.m.-11:30 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. weekends (early closing at 1 p.m. Aug. 28)
Tickets: $5-$15; free for children 5 and younger, military and Laguna Beach residents
Info: (949) 494-1145 or LagunaFestivalofArts.org

Pageant of the Masters

Where: 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: July 7-Sept. 3
Hours: 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: Start at $30 per person (includes a season pass to the Festival of Arts)
Info: (800) 487-3378 or PageantTickets.com

Sawdust Art Festival

Where: 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: July 2-Sept. 5
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Tickets: $10 adults, $7 seniors, $5 children above 5, free for veterans and children 5 and younger
Info: (949) 494-3030 or sawdustartfestival.org

Laguna Art-A-Fair

Where: 777 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: July 2-Sept. 5
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. July 4 and Sept. 5
Tickets: $9 general, which is a season pass; $7 for military and seniors; free for children 12 and younger with an adult
Info: 949-494-4514 or art-a-fair.com

“I am really excited about getting back together with all the artists, and the public,” said Edwards, 59. “I’m a little skeptical about how it’s going to play out, because we don’t know what the public sentiment is going to be.”

Sawdust Art Festival

One thing is for certain: The Sawdust is going to look a little different this summer. First of all, fewer artists are participating this year — about 167, compared to 200-plus in years past.

Some of the older artists in the fest have decided not to risk it and to take a year off. Those include Dion Wright, Ruth Wright, Sarah Kirk and Patti Klingenmeier. Other veterans of the show, such as Gavin Heath, are just not participating this year.

As evidenced during the successful Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace over the fall of 2020, there will be more space in between booths and bigger aisles and walkways. A large gallery wall on the eastern edge of the Sawdust will expand and feature about 16 artists’ works, without the artists actually being present this summer.

Another thing that’s different: The Sawdust has eased its Laguna residency requirement a bit, and is allowing about 11 artists who have participated in the festival’s Winter Fantasy to participate in the summer show. They were chosen by lottery, and having participated in the winter show, they know the rules regarding authenticity, originality, etc.

All of the Sawdust artists interviewed for this story did not have a problem with easing residency requirements for the upcoming festival, and there has not yet been a backlash or major opposition to the move, Sawdust representatives said.

“Yes, it’s a little harder for artists to live in Laguna these days,” said ceramic artist Robert Jones, who also does real estate as a side job. “There’s a little attrition, and people leaving Laguna Beach. There are not that many properties available. It’s beyond a lot of artists’ reach. So it’s nice to have some new visuals, new artists and a little bit of turnover. I’m not overly worried.” 

Also missing from this year’s Sawdust: There won’t be art classes, and no hands-on workshops, although there may be some individual demonstrations put on by the artists in or near their booths. The popular glass blowing cage is expected to be active.

There won’t be a preview party, which is usually a jam-packed and popular affair. “We can’t because of COVID,” said John Bullard, the Sawdust’s general manager. “It’s not worth it.”

Some other lessons learned during the Outdoor Marketplace will be implemented, such as hand sanitizers located throughout the grounds and possible capacity limitations. “Some of this stuff we’re doing and planning as we go along. It’s kind of free flowing,” Bullard said.

Sawdust Artists Share Their Thoughts

The yearlong shutdown of public activities such as art festivals has been extremely difficult on many local artists. Michelle Burt, a painter who also draws figures, said the pandemic “very much impacted” her financially.

“It affected not only the shows, but also the classes that I teach,” said Burt, a Laguna Beach resident who has participated in the Sawdust for eight years. “I’m also a teacher for LOCA (Laguna Outreach for Community Arts). All of it, including the Susi Q (a multipurpose center run by Laguna Beach Seniors), got shut down. I’m hopeful that people will be really eager to come out and support the artists, and see what we’ve been able to create during this time.”

Burt, 53, said the “first time I went back on the (Sawdust) grounds, and I could see people’s faces, I started crying. It was the first time since the pandemic started that I felt normal.”

That was during the Sawdust Outdoor Marketplace, which has proven to be a model on how an outdoor art festival can be produced, even during the toughest of times during this pandemic.

Shamus Koch, 71, who sculpts horses, octopuses and other real and imagined figures out of found metal, said he’s thrilled to get back to “the Cave,” which is what he calls his Sawdust booth, located near the main entertainment stage and the women’s restrooms.

“I’m very excited,” said the 23-year veteran of the festival. “Like everybody else, I got incredibly depressed from the whole COVID thing. When I heard the Sawdust was coming back, that was like Christmas. I’ve got a bunch of metal that I’m making sculptures out of, getting ready for the show.”

Jones, the ceramic artist who’s been with the Sawdust for 29 years, said he’s “beyond excited,” and that the Sawdust has been the main source of his income for decades.

“I’m the potter there,” he said. “There aren’t too many potters left anymore. Back in the day, the festival had over 60 potters. Now I can count them on my two hands.”

Jones, 54, specializes in a kind of horse-hair pottery, in which the horse hair melts during the firing process and creates unique black-and-white designs.

“I’ve buckled down with the ceramics. I’ve got a larger than usual booth space, so I need to have lots of inventory. I’m challenging myself to get a lot of stuff ready.”

Laguna Art-A-Fair

Not to be forgotten or overlooked is the Laguna’s third art festival, Laguna Art-A-Fair, also established in 1967. After the yearlong shutdown, Art-A-Fair is coming back with 110 artists in various media, showcasing and selling their creations in another shady spot along Laguna Canyon Road.

There has never been a residency requirement for Art-A-Fair, and this year is no different, except there won’t be any artists from abroad, according to board president Mike Cahill. This was due to COVID travel restrictions and nearly all of the 2020 participants being automatically juried in for 2021.

Like the other festivals, Art-A-Fair was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

“Last year we had essentially zero income, but we still had to pay rent, utilities, insurance and some portion of taxes,” Cahill said. “We had to pay corporate taxes in California. We also had to pay for one person in the off-season. All that stuff adds up.”

The board president said Art-A-Fair experienced a “huge, huge debt,” although it had a “very robust reserve fund” and received a COVID-relief-related $10,000 grant. It did not receive a PPP loan or other government-sponsored relief.

(Both the Sawdust and the Festival of Arts received PPP loans and other grants, although officials from each would not or could not reveal how much.)

Cahill said Art-A-Fair did propose to the city of Laguna Beach a plan for summer 2020, but ultimately, as COVID cases increased, it just wasn’t going to work.

But Cahill, who’s a participating photographer, and the Art-A-Fair artists are proceeding this year with a plan and layout that’s “the same layout we did in 2019.”

Booths are naturally spaced out with people at least six feet apart, and live entertainment will be planned for Fridays through Sundays. However, there won’t be any art classes and packed demonstrations, and workshops will probably occur with four to six people in designated booths or spaces, with some spacing built in.

“It’s just going to depend on what happens on the 15th, which game plan we’re going to go with,” Cahill said.

The restaurant Tivoli 2 is gone. In its place is an eatery called “777,” which is the address of Art-A-Fair. Everything else is expected to return to “normal,” including the mascot Arty. If kids spot Arty on the grounds, they will get a prize hand-crafted by a participating artist.

“We’ve got a lot of really happy campers this year,” Cahill said. “There were a lot of really disappointed campers last year. Everybody’s really jazzed about it.

“If we got shut down again this year, I don’t know if we would survive.”  

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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