Still a Showcase for New Talent


“Here, try to get this ring off!” challenged an impishly grinning Nick Alexander as passersby meandered by the Sawdust Festival booth of Laguna Mountain Toys. A few gamely stepped up to solve small wooden puzzles that look simple, but are devilishly complicated it turns out.

Jennifer Kucera Rothman with her puzzles and Sawdust family photos. Photos by Daniella Walsh.
Jennifer Kucera Rothman with her puzzles and Sawdust family photos. Photos by Daniella Walsh.

Nick knew the solutions, but kept their secrets. The Thurston Middle School student puzzle whiz was recruited by his teacher, booth exhibitor Jesse Rothman.

The booth of Jennifer Kucera Rothman and her husband Jesse may some day be staffed by their now 7-month-old daughter, Janelle. After all, making wooden toys for children of all ages has been a family tradition since 1977 when Jennifer’s parents, Lee and Don Kucera, began making the toys. After Don’s death in 1998, mother and daughter continued making and selling toys and small pieces of wooden jewelry at the Sawdust until 2003.

Last summer, Jennifer, a teacher on parental leave, and husband Jesse, a Thurston teacher and Laguna Beach lifeguard, returned to the Sawdust. “We are a legacy. People are coming back who still remember my parents,” said Jennifer. It’s fitting that we came back last year for the Sawdust’s 50th birthday,” said Jennifer.

Since Janelle’s arrival, the couple has added a line of wooden baby toys, but the puzzles drew the crowds last Saturday. “I also bring the puzzles to school to give to students. It motivates them to get their work done and helps at solving problems,” said Jesse. (Booth 216)

By contrast, a majority of Sawdust veterans attentively engaged with visitors. “A lot of people come here to see the artists work, so a lot of absences defeat the purpose here,” said jewelry maker and Sawdust board member Annette Doreng-Stearns. She empathized with artists who also maintain day jobs to survive and noted that attendance isn’t required of summer exhibitors.

Marita Taylor-Holton, proprietor of “Aristokrown” at her Sawdust Festival booth.
Marita Taylor-Holton, proprietor of “Aristokrown” at her Sawdust Festival booth.

Jewelry maker Marita Taylor-Holton found her niche making intricate tiaras and headbands for princesses big and small. A trained architect, she said that she is of Russian descent and mines her country’s and Europe’s aristocratic history for inspiration. Naming her enterprise “Aristokrown,” she counts among her inventory a garnet tiara modeled on one worn by Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine. They range in cost from $40 to $1,100. “Sixty percent of my clientele are brides but a lot of people wear them for fun; I’ve seen them at music festivals like Burning Man,” she said. Wannabe mermaids, for example, might go for an intricate tiara made of seashells. (Booth 211)

A first-timer this year, she is married to pop artist Robert Holton (Booth 246). “He is my muse,” she said.

Painter Arife Ucuncuoglu emigrated from Turkey 11 years ago. A six-year Laguna Beach resident, she specializes in portraits such as the one of reggae great Bob Marley and depictions of wildlife. “Wyland is my inspiration,” she said. (Booth 245)

Regulars at Mozambique restaurant will recognize manager John Meisse in a different context. He is also a painter whose black and white works recall Mayan calendars, modern graffiti art and points between. “I paint in a stream of consciousness and there is no such thing as a mistake, that’s rule number one,” he said. Instead he sets out to finish every piece he starts, often repeating eyes, faces, landscapes. “I don’t preconceive, but use the same components and balance black and white, positive and negative space.” The results are surf and skateboards, silk-screened t-shirts and drawings. “It’s a meditative process, one that requires remaining in a zone,” he said. “I have been an artist since I was a kid but the Sawdust is teaching me how to market my art.” (Booth 236)


John Meisse works on a surfboard in a booth at the Sawdust Festival.
John Meisse works on a surfboard in a booth at the Sawdust Festival.

Another first timer, at least for summer, is David Kizziar whose fascinatingly intricate colored pencil drawings and oil paintings drew crowds during last year’s Winter Fantasy.

Inspired by the work of old masters, he said that he paints every day to convey his passion for life and the magic of art.

All this leaves the question how the Sawdust can attract fresh talent that also satisfies local residency requirements with live/work space at a premium.

Sawdust general manager Tom Klingenmeier said that many artists first apply for the Winter Fantasy, which has no residency requirement, making connections that lead to relocating. “Finding living or working spaces is getting harder and harder for newcomers and we have thought of ways to alleviate the problem,” he said. But, there are no plans to expand zip codes yet. “At this time Laguna residency is still part of the tradition,” he said.


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