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Sawdust Festival Sheds Hippie Daze

Arts-and-crafts exhibit begins its 37th year in Laguna Beach. Once avant-garde, the show has become reputable -- even respected.

June 28, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

You'll have to forgive the Sawdust Art Festival if it seems a little uptight. At 37, you just can't be that rowdy teenager anymore.

Time was, the Laguna Beach summer show was a hippie haven -- trippy art, revolutionary mind-set. "But all us hippies are gray, old farts now," said Dion Wright, a metal sculptor from Arizona who was at the first Sawdust in 1966.

So the show, which opened Friday and continues through Aug. 31, has struggled through some growing pains. Staying provocative and crisp is tough in any art circle. At Sawdust, it's even trickier. The show founded to rebel against the "establishment" Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters became reputable. Even respected.

A gray hair or two has followed.

Find Arlyth Atkinson, a lively 76-year-old grandmother, among the nearly 200 artists. Ask her about the crazy days. She'll grin into the snow-white hat she just crocheted, and knit together a few memories:

The local artists resented the juried shows. They just wanted to create. Their intent was egalitarian: All artists could exhibit, all visitors could appreciate. The price of admission went to a quarter only after some locals came to chant and preach rather than look. And the parties -- well, it was the '60s.

"Closing night is now a sober affair," Atkinson said.

The festival beginnings were on a dusty lot near North Coast Highway. When the wind whipped, the art would get dirty; spreading sawdust on the ground was the solution. Two years later, the show was shipped to Laguna Canyon Road, on what is still its 3-acre home.

Sawdust's adolescence was crowned with offbeat art. Wright, 65, recalled the artist who erected a counter-top, chair and mannequin reading a paper. Visitors would drop in, say hello -- and get the joke when there was no reply.

Wright said that, for a time, the show's feistiness was dulled. The surrounding community changed from Timothy Leary's neighborhood to a pricey enclave.

"Instead of doing it by the seat of our pants, there's management," he said.

The show also gained popularity -- so much so that the only new artists it accepts are from Laguna Beach. Officials expect 200,000 visitors this summer. Adults will pay at least $5.50 to get in.

What has saved Sawdust from limping to maturity, artists say, is an annual injection of novelty. Artists such as Karen Joy, a 20-year exhibitor, are sparked by new muses. For Joy, 48, it was Azul and Chachi -- the birds whose chewed bits were reborn as a collage.

Also, 20 or so first-timers are displaying their work on the village-like grounds, whose paths twist through displays of silver jewelry, Technicolor 3-D paintings and blown glass. The newcomers energize the old guard.

Linda Kreidler, 50, paints portraits of shoes -- pumps and sandals and stilettos -- and drinks. Specifically, gin martinis, cosmopolitans and lemon drops.

Across the path, Kristin Harrell, 29, and her fiance create art inspired by tattoos (of which Harrell has 12).

Harrell, who grew up attending Sawdust, was a "hobby artist" until friends convinced her to apply for the show.

"I thought this was for the established artist, the struggling artist," she said.

"But a guy here was like, 'We need new people! We don't want old, boring stuff!' "

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