Squinting her eyes and turning her head this way and that, artist Jessica de Stefano is studying her subject, a dark-haired woman grateful she need not sit frozen like statuary.
Slowly, a likeness of Carrie Angland emerges, carved from polymer clay that de Stefano paints and fires in porcelain at home. “In my mind I take a picture of who I have sculpted and remember their features and coloring precisely,” she said. “It is almost like working in a trance.”
De Stefano, a longtime Laguna Beach resident and first year exhibitor at the Festival of Arts, has taken portraiture into three dimensions. Instead of painting her subjects, she sculpts them. Visitors like Angland, of Los Angeles, must leave the creation behind for a final firing and the work either picked up or mailed.
Angland sat for a mini-bust to commemorate her first visit to the festival and add to her family’s budding art collection.
De Stefano says she’s done a dozen of the five-inch high busts while booth sitting on the festival grounds. She charges between $100 and $200 and sittings take 30 to 45 minutes, where subjects are free to talk and move. Throughout, de Stefano remains tightly focused while still engaging her subjects in conversation.
Thus she learns that Angland is a make-up artist, whose client list includes celebrities she declined to divulge except for name-dropping Anjelica Huston. “That’s the only time I felt star struck,” said Angland.
Meanwhile, de Stefano struggles a bit to get the hair on the tiny bust to fall just right. “I have an easier time doing men than women; men have less hair or none at all,” she quipped. A display of sculptures of locals such City Council member Steve Dicterow and art scene regular John Hoover give credence to her assertion.
Even so, de Stefano did not get juried into the festival on the strength of such unusual portraiture. Her portfolio of sculptures is diverse. She worked in the figurine industry and her own pieces are often titled with a message or snippet of personal wisdom.
For example, a choral group of five figures titled “What the World Needs Now…” consists of a rabbi, a nun, a Protestant preacher, a Muslim and a Buddhist monk.
“Freedom of Choice” shows two sets of four women with a wave for feet tugging a rope in opposite directions. “It’s really just one woman trying to make the right choices in life and sometimes feels torn up by the process,” explained de Stefano, pint-sizing the message to a group of children visiting with a camp counselor.
Here the piece de resistance is a 10-inch statue of Poseidon surrounded by sea life and waves. The figure’s flowing hair supports a glass circle upon which one finds the small likeness of a surfer. “It’s a tribute to Hobie Alter for revolutionizing surfing,” she said, referring to the surf and sailing icon from Laguna Beach who died in March.
A native of New York, de Stefano grew up in Pennsylvania, but her taproot in Laguna Beach stems from her grandfather, Percy Wise Clarkson. He built the St. Francis by the Sea church on Park Avenue and served as the founding archbishop of the American Catholic congregation, said De Stefano. “He built the church from rubble collected from the Long Beach earthquake of 1933,” she explained.
Her work, too, possesses spiritual overtones. De Stefano’s best-selling yoga figurines strike established poses, which are meant to be touched and meditated upon.
Anne and Bill Valdez, visiting from Palos Verdes recently, admired one and circling back through the festival grounds, bought one.
Then there is “Still Happy Together,” a portrayal of two bent seniors supporting each other that well exemplifies her artistic goals. “I emphasize character, not exact likeness. I am interested primarily in the feelings and character a person exudes,” she said.