A family affair: Why the Sawdust Festival feels like coming home

By MARRIE STONE

Maybe I’m in a nostalgic mood these days. Or maybe, given the drumbeat of dismal world news, I realized I’m better off focusing my gratitude at home on things I can control – meaningful friendships, strong family bonds, the overwhelming wonders of the natural world in my own backyard. Maybe that’s why, this year more than most, the Sawdust Festival’s annual opening felt especially poignant.

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Photo by Scott Brashier

People patiently waited to celebrate the Sawdust Festival’s 58th annual opening

The entry line stretched two full blocks on preview night and, no matter how long the wait or crowded the aisles, no one wanted to give up. “It’s tradition,” many attendees told me. And in a climate of cultural instability, perhaps tradition means something more to folks. The Sawdust is also imbued with all the nostalgic hallmarks of places that feel like home – hand-built booths with hand-painted signs, a vintage Ford truck and even a tiny treehouse, all nestled under a canopy of hundred-year-old eucalyptus trees.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

A 1930s Ford Model AA truck lends an air of nostalgia to this year’s festival

If you consider this community part of your extended family – as many of us do – the Sawdust Festival’s preview night is our annual reunion. People do what it takes to make it home, to be back together to celebrate the start of summer.

Fortunately for us, “family” is an inclusive term at Sawdust, which embraces both its artists and our broader village, creating an atmosphere that feels more than comfortably familiar – it feels like stepping back in time to the magical whimsy of childhood. For many of us, it’s the place that holds decades of memories, maybe even of our own childhoods.

That’s all to say, the outside world may have changed. But inside the Sawdust, things largely remain as they’ve always been – wholesome and pure, safe and happy.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Reunited and it feels so good. Generations of Laguna’s Sawdust family come back together to celebrate.

As I stood in the swirl of homecoming hugs last week, I asked myself what made this true. The answers arrived everywhere I looked.

Keeping it in the family: Passing down legacies and traditions

In the 58 years the Sawdust has been part of Laguna’s landscape, generations of new artists have arrived, often within the same family. Take Laguna Mountain Toys. Founded by Don and Lee Kucera in 1977, the wooden toy and puzzle company had been a Sawdust staple for 25 years. Their hand-crafted products brought a sweet air of innocence that fit squarely in the Festival’s ethos.

But Don’s death in 1998 dealt a blow to the business. Although Lee and her daughter Jennifer continued for five more years, they ceased operations in 2004 when Jennifer went off to college.

A decade later, Jennifer was committed to reviving her parents’ legacy. In 2015, she and her husband Jesse reopened the shop. They also welcomed a new baby, Janelle, who is already poised to take over her family business someday. At only seven-years-old, Janelle single-handedly designed this year’s booth and helped her dad built it. She was also the inspiration behind the new line of baby and toddler toys the company introduced in 2017. Today, like always, everything is 100% homemade in Lee’s garage.

Laguna Mountain Toys isn’t the family’s only tradition. They also appear on stage in the Pageant of the Masters. Jesse plays the role of Jesus in “The Last Supper” finale, and this year Janelle plays Henry VIII’s son. Don was also in “The Last Supper” for 17 years, in the role of Simon Peter.

Stop by Laguna Mountain Toys to check out some of Doug Miller’s historic photos of the family through the generations.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Janelle (above) and Jennifer (below) are two of the three generations of Laguna Mountain Toys. Janelle designed this year’s booth and helped her father build it.

Sharing adjoining booths, mother/daughter duo Lisa and Tessa Mansour embody what the Sawdust Festival is all about – family, friendship and a passion for art. This is Lisa’s sixth year at the Sawdust and 24th year in Laguna. Blending traditional technique with exuberant expression, Lisa joyfully explores the playful side of fine art, painting colorful donuts and pretty dresses.

She passed that creative gene onto her 26-year-old daughter, Tessa, who discovered her love of ceramics at Laguna Beach High School. This is Tessa’s first year at the Sawdust, adopting her family’s pet name for her business, “Sweet T Ceramics.”

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“A lot of my work is inspired by my mom,” Tessa said. “I originally made ceramic donuts for her as a birthday present. They turned out really cute, so I’m showing those.”

Inspiration is a two-way street between these two. Lisa incorporated Tessa’s signature pink into her logo. “I didn’t realize how much pink I used in my work until then,” Lisa said. Looking at her work, you’ll see it everywhere.

It’s families like the Mansours who will carry our town’s traditions forward, preserving the legacy all the artists before them have left behind.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Debut exhibitor Tessa Mansour (left) and mom Lisa Mansour share adjoining booths this year, showcasing paintings, postcards and ceramics

Home is where the heart (and art) is

For other artists, family is embedded in the art they create. Inspired by her three sons, Jeweler Beth Kukuk created three interlocking hearts made from three types of metals – gold, silver and rose gold.

“The hearts have been my bestsellers for many years,” Kukuk said. “They’re popular for women who want jewelry that represents their family. I have a variety of hearts, with different numbers and metals for women to choose.”

Kukuk’s designs are also inspired by nature. Her necklaces, bracelets, anklets, earrings and rings incorporate lots of color, as well as nature’s own floral designs.

“I like to make things that are really wearable. The pieces are very light and can go from day to night,” she said.

Kukuk does a lot of mixed metal. She also recently started a new line incorporating inlays with hand-tinted resin that offer pops of bright color in her light and delicate style.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Beth Kukuk’s most popular jewelry design was inspired by her three sons

Inspirations: Home is in our own backyard

The Sawdust also reminds us of all the beauty to be found in our own backyards. From Patsee Ober’s underwater photography off our coast to Joan Gladstone’s playful scenes on Main Beach, examples are everywhere. They’re in David Kizzar’s detailed drawings of our town. They’re in Douglas Miller’s historic photos, capturing generations of Lagunans, businesses and street scenes now lost to history.

No doubt this hyper-focus on Laguna comes, in part, from the Sawdust’s requirement that all its exhibitors live in town. Of course, they’re inspired by what they see every day. And what they see reminds each of us of our own home. It’s a powerful pull on our collective psyche.

Photographer Josh King has beautifully captured our coastline in his lens. He’s shown in the Sawdust for 11 years and currently serves as their Vice President. “To be of service to something like this is incredible,” he said. “I think everyone should serve at some point.”

Those acts of service also define the homegrown nature of this Festival, which relies on a cooperative spirit and instills a sense of community amongst its artists.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Photographer Josh King reminds us of the ever-changing beauty in our own backyard

Whether you’ve never been to the Sawdust or you’re a diehard fan, I encourage you to enter its gates with a renewed spirit of gratitude this year. The Sawdust plays an outsized role in our community, holding us together when the outside world feels like it’s falling apart. If there’s one place that embodies our town’s collective spirit, and what it means to be not just a Laguna resident but a true part of this town, it’s the Sawdust. If you doubt that, look around the next time you’re there. The signs are everywhere.

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Laguna will come together to share a night filled with music, drink, laughter and dance

The Sawdust Festival is open daily through Sunday, September 1.

Hours of Operation: Sunday – Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday – Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Single-day admission tickets may be used any day of the summer festival: $12 for adults. $10 for seniors, ages 65 and up. $5 for children ages 6-12. Children ages 5 and under receive free admission and do not require a ticket to enter.

For tickets, click here.


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