Legendary Artist Returns to the Sawdust

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At a preview party for Sawdust Festival artists, Bill Ogden prepares to sign the poster he created to mark the art show’s 50th year. It opens to the public June 24. Photo by marilynn Young
At a preview party for Sawdust Festival artists, Bill Ogden prepares to sign the poster he created to mark the art show’s 50th year. It opens to the public June 24.
Photos of preview party by Marilynn Young

Bill Ogden happily returned to Laguna Beach and Sawdust Art and Craft the Festival this week. Here, he earned recognition as an era-defining artist whose vision made him a standard bearer for heady times when youth culture pushed hard against a prevalent art establishment.

“My work embodies the consciousness of my generation and expresses the feeling of that era,” said Ogden of drawings and paintings depicting fantasy worlds often placed near or in the ocean.

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Kathy Jepson-Bernier (center) celebrate the 50th anniversary with Tom Wilson,left, and Jordan Brodie in a VW Van at the Sawdust Festival on the opening night party for artists
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Rebecca Barber hugs a friend in the booth of glass design artist John Barber. Photos by Marilynn Young

 

It was in the late 1960s that young art and crafts people were bent on turning Laguna from a stodgy province into a place for all whose art had something new to say.

The process included divorcing themselves from the prevailing art scene and starting their own venue, which culminated in establishing the Sawdust in 1966. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it opens to the public on Friday, June 24, and runs through Aug. 28.

Holding aloft the painting he produced as a prototype for the poster to mark the milestone, Ogden noted that a feisty spirit remains alive in town through its artists. “I made art for people. I wanted them to have fun and figured that as an artist, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”

Today, he lives in the high desert, 4,000 feet up at Pinyon Flat, he said. “Living surrounded by nature, with a Sheltie dog and two horses, I welcome the lack of distraction. Nothing is pulling at me,” he said.

After exhibiting at the fledgling festival in 1968 and on and off in later years, Ogden returns as an invited guest. It’s an elevated status compared to 1997 when he was given a free spot in return for designing a poster for that year’s fest.

Spurred on by appreciative contemporaries such as Greg Thorne and Star Shields and board member Jay Grant, the organization chose to honor Ogden with a residency after learning he underwent treatment for cancer of the larynx. Ogden does not dwell on the illness and neither does anyone else who knew him then and still consider him an inspiration.

Now 73, he’s leaner in stature, but still large of vision, as creative and sure of his calling as he has ever been. And, while some suggest the prevalence of psychedelic drugs as fuel for his early inspiration, Ogden is adamant that his own, naturally induced imagination is the source of inspiration for works such as the spectacular 2004 “Pacific Awakening.” Now-vintage editions of his Sound Spectrum calendars can still be purchased at the music store on Coast Highway.

“LSD was a passing fad, really. For many of us, creativity continued to evolve from our own imagination, drawing and painting for pure joy,” he said.

He did design two “Timothy Leary Kidnapped By Government Officials” posters in 1970, calling for donations toward a $100,000 ransom. Leary, involved with the acid-making Brotherhood of Eternal Love, based in Laguna Beach, was arrested here and later escaped from prison. “Things actually began to fall apart around ’72 with the advance of Timothy Leary and the psychedelic revolution, but there was also a lot of creativity that came from it,” Ogden said.

Then again, joy pervades even his commercial works, which included ads for Jansen swimwear and surfboard designs for Hobie. “Jansen recognized that I had my finger on the pulse of my generation,” he said. His ‘60s surfing cartoons reveal a witty sense of humor. He said that his series of posters depicting female surfers show respect. “I had no intention of glamorizing the women, but gave them depth of character,” he said.

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Artist Greg Thorne is greeted by twins Molly and Mackenzie Akins,22, by his booth as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sawdust Festival at the opening night party for artists and invited guests June 21, 2016.

Thorne metamorphosed from festival musician to painter and now jewelry maker. “Bill Ogden inspired me to become an artist. Bill, more than anyone else captured the spirit of my generation’s presence in Laguna Beach,” said Thorne, an exhibitor since 1969. He said Ogden followed his own vision, which gave his peers their own place in the sun. “Many people do not know who Bill is or his legacy, but he changed my life,” said Thorne.

Shields, a mixed media artist, started showing at the Sawdust in 1972. This year, he painted the iconic VW mini-bus parked at the Sawdust entrance, and his booth features temporary tattoos, face painting, silkscreened shirts and surfboards featuring his designs. “We rallied around Bill this year and got the board to build him a booth and give him a spot for free. They have not done that for any artist, and everyone is happy to have him here,” said Shields.

 

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Hand blown glass artist Alex Fritz at his booth on the 50th anniversary of the Sawdust Festival at the opening night party.

On preview night, Laguna residents also got a first look at the 14 glass lamps and a spectacular glass sculpture, “Helios Envista,” donated by Bruce Freund, a 38-year exhibitor.

Grant, the Sawdust board president, calls Ogden “a legend in Laguna.”

“Bill is a consummate artist and a good friend now. All of us are pleased to have him as our focused guest,” he said.

 

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