LAGUNA BEACH — Five years ago, sculptor Terry Thornsley found a 700-pound mass of dull rock buried in a dust-dry mountain in Yucca Valley.
On Saturday, it was unveiled as Thornsley's latest work of art, a five-foot-high, gleaming marble sculpture of a playful sea lion swimming happily past a coral reef.
It was expected to be a big hit at this year's Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach, which opened Saturday and will run for seven weeks. After all, Thornsley said, the future shape of the black marble he began working on five weeks ago was etched in stone from the start in his head.
"When I looked at this stone, I said, 'That was it,' " Thornsley said about the piece, priced at $20,000 and finished a day before Saturday's official opening of the festival on Laguna Canyon Road.
Early Saturday, the first of an expected 250,000 visitors began filtering into the Festival of the Arts compound to view, price and sometimes buy the works of 164 artists who live in the beach communities from Newport Beach to San Clemente.
Escaping the hectic traffic and a steady stream of beach-goers headed for nearby Main Beach, 8,500 tourists, locals and amateur art critics wandered through the maze of works, enjoying classical music and free wine and cheese.
"It's got such a cultural feel to it," said Ellen Gonnering of Mission Viejo, who sat on a park bench listening to classical guitarist Eric Henderson deftly strumming "Capricho Arabe" by Francisco Taraga. "This is my favorite festival in Laguna Beach. We try to come at least once a year."
Two other art exhibits, the Sawdust Festival and the Art-A-Fair, are across the street from the Festival of the Arts grounds and are also open most of the summer.
The Festival of the Arts, however, is the oldest and considered the premier festival in this community that draws thousands of tourists to its shores each summer.
The artists, who displayed works ranging from handcrafted purses and guitars to oil paintings and sculptures, were chosen in March from more than 300 local artists. The festival is open until Aug. 26, festival spokeswoman Sally Reeve said.
The opening of the festival, which began in 1932, was marked by a special Friday night VIP preview of the Pageant of the Masters in Irvine Bowl, an outdoor theater nestled into a wall of Laguna Canyon.
In the Pageant of the Masters, volunteers take part in "living pictures," or re-creations of great works of art, including Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," Emanuel Luetze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and Claude Monet's "Women in the Garden."
The two-hour show is "difficult to explain but a delight to see," Reeve said. Its proceeds underwrite the daily art exhibit, which costs the festival organization about $600 an artist during the course of the festival.
The rest of the pageant proceeds are used to grant more than $200,000 in scholarships and grants to Laguna Beach High School and local college students, Reeve said.
"The Pageant of the Masters is what draws the people to the festival," which is at the mouth of Laguna Canyon, just three blocks from Main Beach, Reeve said.
Visitors wander among the colorful, avant-garde pottery, impressionistic watercolors, whimsical wall hangings and cases of shiny jewelry.
Art pieces--including one-of-a-kind guitars, purses and Angora sweaters--are priced from less than $100 to more than $30,000.
"It does attract buyers, good-quality buyers," Reeve said, sitting in her office Saturday. "I get excited when I go out there."
The exhibit is important to artists because for most of them, it is the only chance to display their works.
"It's not just the immediate sales that make this worthwhile," Thornsley said, "but it's contacts you make and the friends you meet."
Indeed, animal artist Chris Hoy, who sat in his cubicle and worked on a portrait of a prize-winning schnauzer, said he displays his works only at the Festival of the Arts. But the 80 or so contacts he makes keep him busy--and well paid--for the rest of the year.
Laguna Beach artist Roarke Gourley, who creates whimsical, cartoon-like wall hangings, sold his first work without being at the festival.
Leslie Popkin, 34, of Los Angeles came early to the festival, armed with a checkbook.
"I definitely came to buy something for my wall," she said.
She found the perfect piece when she rounded a corner and was struck by two of Gourley's works: "Mikee's Teeth," a rendering of a baby biting the tail of the family cat, and "Cat Nap," a three-dimensional wall hanging of an orange cat sleeping on a green couch with colorful fish floating past its head.
Others attended the festival's opening day simply to feast their eyes on local talent. Romanian-born Simon Bercovici gushed over a watercolor of Istanbul, although he admitted that he could not afford the work.
"It's mystical," he told artist Harold Lambert, a successful architect who gave up his profession of 30 years to be a full-time artist two years ago. "You caught the flavor of the city very well. It's a very nice subject."
Bercovici and his wife, Leo, have been coming to the festival every year since they emigrated in 1971.
"The colors are very calming," Leo Bercovici said, wearing a You Gotta Have Art T-shirt from the Laguna Beach Museum of Art.
"I can look at this painting for a long time without getting tired."