Cliff Cramp admits it: Art snobs might pooh-pooh the Orange County Fair as the last place to unearth a creative gem. Artistic brilliance, they figure, couldn't possibly be housed in the same building as cheesecake on a stick.
But as the professor of illustration at Cal State Fullerton sipped lemonade and stared at the fair's visual arts building, he was determined. He would find jewels inside.
"I'm going to see work that's better in here than in professional galleries," he said.
"I'll go into galleries and stare at a painting for 20 minutes and go, 'I don't get it.' These here probably have heart."
Cramp, who has two master's degrees in illustration, toured the building at The Times' request, taking in more than 1,400 exhibits in photography, fine arts and woodworking. Judges select which of the nearly 2,500 entries will be displayed, many of which are then sold -- in some cases for hundreds of dollars.
Cramp found sparks of talent:
* "The Still Quiet," an honorable-mention watercolor by Caroline Schmied of a spider web in the wild, "is like a picture book, like Beatrix Potter stories or 'Charlotte's Web,' " he said. "There's just beautiful suggestion here; it tells you just enough."
* In a third-place oil painting of a John Deere excavator with sturdy stokes and intense colors, Cramp saw the strong style of California Impressionists. The subject of Marcia Weatherholt-Bernhardt reminded him of the state's scene painters: "They went out and painted bulldozers. They went out and painted things that are more of everyday life."
* The photograph "The Main Mast" by Dietrich Sellenthin leads the viewer's eye to trace a boat's mast to the top. Price: $75. "Oh! I think they could charge more," Cramp said.
Brian Langston, a spokesman for the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, said it's not uncommon to find works of wonder at a fair.
It's just not, well, expected.
"The display of art at the fair is to the art world like the way judging food products is to the culinary world," he said. It's for beginners or hobbyists, he said. Which doesn't mean talentless.
Cramp, 41, got his start doodling in dirt while waiting for his turn at bat.
His first-grade teacher saw it and handed him paper and a pencil. Years of drawing and degrees followed.
His formal training means that he spots technical flaws.
A few nature photographers failed to see when the line of the horizon blended into the cliffs or the boats they were shooting. Cramp couldn't tell where objects started and stopped.
The biggest affront to Cramp's artistic sensibilities was a large price tag for a painting with harsh, striking brush stokes and, Cramp said, no focus.
"This piece here -- I don't know why it's in the professional category. I wouldn't pay $2,000 for this. I know what I charge for a painting, and no way."
The artist's heart was won by a $1,200 blue-ribbon coffee table with four tiles embedded in its top, made by William Powell.
Cramp ran to it. "This is a beautiful table!" Art snobs, he said, might dismiss it as too utilitarian -- as something for Ikea, not a museum.
But the professor liked its lines and detail, the fact that it combined beauty with function.
So he stood near the building's exit and proclaimed: "People might dismiss this as nothing. I say hogwash!"
The Orange County Fair continues through Sunday at 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Hours and information: (714) 708-FAIR or online at www.ocfair.com.