Festival Nurtures a Family of Artists


By Kellie Hall, Special to the Independent

Artist Deborah Paswaters gained a crowd for live-sketching model and ballerina Ruth Dormaier at the Sawdust Festival.
Artist Deborah Paswaters gained a crowd for live-sketching model and ballerina Ruth Dormaier at the Sawdust Festival.

Artists credit the Sawdust Festival, the arts and crafts festival whose 48th summer show opens Friday, June 27 and continues through Sunday, Aug. 31, with providing them financial support and creative motivation for an entire year.

The entirety of jewelry-maker and 30-year festival veteran Karen Joy’s yearly income comes from the Sawdust and she’s not alone. Numerous full-time artists stated that the majority of their income comes from Sawdust profits, including Joy’s booth-mate, photographer Mark Sanderson, who derives about half of his income from the summer-time festival. These profits are on top of the $685 to $1,280 booth fee for artists, deemed “reasonable” by Joy.

Only Laguna Beach residents may participate in the festival, though exceptions are made, and exhibitors are selected in a lottery system based on seniority, according to Sawdust spokeswoman Cynthia Fung,

Though the Sawdust and nearby Art-A-Fair festival open to the general public on Friday, Sawdust kicked off the season with an invitation-only preview this past Tuesday that included a large number of supporters. Live rock music pumped through the festival grounds, keeping the crowd going as twilight faded to night. Dressed in high heels, many women bravely navigated the woodchips lining the floor, which lend the festival its name, and everyone seemed excited to partake in the venerated tradition.

Less crowded in past years due to cap on invitation per artists to 10 from 20, crowds moved relatively freely, catching up with artists and friends alike with hardly a moment passing without a surprise reunion. The preview night was not so much about sales as it was re-connecting and making introductions to new members of the Sawdust family.

The festival gives up-and-coming artists a chance to establish themselves within the local arts community and beyond, “to know who is whom,” second time festival participant and painter Hugo Rivera said.

Some artists hope to parlay the festival into a full-time occupation, including the husband-and-wife team and festival first-timers, Carrie Woodburn and Andrew Soliz of Edgy G studio. Learned from his Lakota Native American roots, Soliz makes leather goods, which they sell alongside Woodburn’s paintings at their booth.

The festival “gives artists an opportunity to pursue being an artist in Laguna,” six-year festival veteran Brynne Cogorno said in an interview prior to the preview.

She credits a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with raising her awareness of environmental issues. Cogorno, now 31, relocated to Laguna Beach, her summer-time home during childhood. In 2008, she started Backward Prints, selling hand-printed clothing and eco-friendly note cards, embedded with wildflowers seeds.

Since she relies on the 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. festival’s proceeds for 70 percent of her annual income, Cogorno developed a business strategy: staff your booth often because “it’s all about effort,” she said.

The festival requires a significant investment for the booth fee as well as in creating inventory, which may deter young artists from participating, Cogorno pointed out. Asking Sawdust veterans for advice is crucial for festival newcomers, she said.

Yet direct profits from sales are just one way artists take advantage of the Sawdust festival. It’s “not about the money,” said nine-time festival participant Katlin Evans, 35, who in spring finished her master’s in fine arts at California State University, Fullerton.

Evans creates large-scale, close-up drawings of objects, which obscure its form. For the festival, she created smaller studies of her massive artworks, but refused to compromise her vision in order to sell more artwork. This resolve helped her to land her own show next month at the Hinge Modern Gallery in Culver City, introduced to the gallery representative at last year’s Sawdust festival.

The festival also serves as a showcase for potential clients, glass-blower Christopher Jeffries said, noting that the Sawdust is among few festivals with demonstration areas. These allow artists to show “not just what you make but how you make it,” Jeffries noted. Classes are also available to festival visitors.

Though artists had varying motivations for exhibiting, almost all shared a sentiment about the festival’s ability to draw Laguna Beach’s arts community together. “Sawdust is community, family and friendships,” Cogorno said.


Photo: Artist Deborah Paswaters gained a crowd for live-sketching model and ballerina Ruth Dormaier at the Sawdust Festival.

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