Part of the Sawdust Festival’s charm involves the transformation of a Eucalyptus grove into often-ingenious booths erected by exhibiting artists. But, as photographer John Genestas tragically found out, being one’s own architect and contractor brings its own peril when he fell backward from a 10-foot ladder while assembling a booth for himself and his wife, jewelry maker Lisa Genestas.
The fall on June 1, less than a month before the season was to begin, broke his neck, back and a rib and embedded metal fragments in one eye. It appeared doubtful that he would get out of a wheelchair again, let alone recover at a rate that now has him beginning to walk with just a cane.
“I don’t remember any of that, except that after I fell, I wanted to get up again and finish the booth,” he said.
While in intensive care for 14 days with Lisa at his side, fellow Sawdust artists rallied to the couple’s support. “People came forward with food, visitations, money and greeting cards,” said Genestas, 64, who, along with everyone else, is amazed at his rapid recovery.
Meanwhile, Lisa and Adam, the couple’s 18-year-old son, moved the art works into a finished booth donated by the Sawdust. The festival stepped in to ease their financial straights as well, aided by the Artists’ Benevolence Fund, founded to help artists unable to make a living due to dire circumstances.
This Sunday, a surplus of works donated by artists to replenish the Benevolence Fund will be sold at live and silent auctions, a new addition this year. “It would have been difficult this year to get all the donated works of art out in just a live auction,” said Sue Thomson, the fund coordinator. The silent auction is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the grounds at Healy House, while the live auction takes place on the entertainment deck from 2 to 5 p.m.
In 2010, a deluge in Laguna Canyon destroyed many artists’ studios. The fund disbursed roughly $30,000 then, said Thomson, a painter and 12-year Sawdust exhibitor. “I have had two bouts with cancer, and the fund helped me through the financial straits while undergoing chemo,” she said.
The fund, started in 1987 and re-organized in 1993 as a non-profit under the umbrella of the Sawdust, is intended to help all Laguna Beach artists who make their living solely through art, not just Sawdust exhibitors, she said.
Its co-administrators, artists Mike Kelly, Susan Wade and Larry Gill, plan a second winter auction to reach a wider audience. Last year’s auction netted $16,000, Thomson said.
For her part, Lisa Genestas appreciates her fellow artists for presciently creating a rainy day fund and their acts of immediate intervention.
“Within hours there were hot meals at the house and people otherwise made time for us, all while preparing their own booths,” said Lisa, in 2001 also broker her neck and has recovered, but has recently been diagnosed with Myasthenia gravis, a muscle weakness disorder.
Even so, the couple remains optimistic. Lisa had built enough stock of her silver and mixed metal jewelry to last while she spent with her husband. John had made and framed enough photographs for sale. Adam who graduated from Laguna Beach High School while John was hospitalized, will start fall classes at Irvine Valley College. “There is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lisa.