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Laguna Beach

A cultural cornucopia: Laguna’s local festivals attract a broad spectrum of international artists


Photos by Jeffrey Rovner

Although art speaks a universal language, it reflects personal experiences. Art exposes cultural customs, political norms, and religious practices. It can communicate private passions and individual fears. Often, and ironically, the more intimate the artistic expression, the more unifying it can feel. Even if artists’ backgrounds appear wholly different from our own, we might still find ourselves reflected in their imagery. Art knits us together through our shared human experience, evoking collective emotions – humor and whimsy, pleasure and beauty, sadness and despair. The more diverse the artistic voices, the richer the emotional encounters.

While the Festival of Arts requires its exhibitors to live in Orange County, many of them come from countries across the world. Almost 25 percent of the artists were born (and often raised) outside the United States. Twenty-nine of the 120 artists represent 21 countries located on six continents. There’s a South African glass artist and a South Korean oil painter. Photographers from Chile and Australia. Printmakers from Japan and India, and sculptors from Bulgaria and Germany. Two Taiwanese oil painters and jewelers from five different countries. 

The Sawdust Festival, which restricts exhibitor residency to Laguna Beach itself, includes artists from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, and Sweden. The Laguna Art-A-Fair, not having any residency requirements, draws roughly 15 artists born and raised in countries like Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Georgia, Belarus, Korea, France, and Cambodia. 

What these artists offer stretches beyond their talents. They bring cultural traditions, but they also bring unique upbringings, diverse perspectives, and rich educational backgrounds. Some grew up in nations that demanded conformity. Many received a rigorous and competitive education. Others enjoyed an uncommonly open childhood. A few endured wars and oppressive regimes. Several were saturated in European art, architecture, and literature. Some were isolated and oppressed while many were given free rein to explore the distant boundaries of their passions. They all contribute to the grand mixture of art on display at this year’s festivals. 

Here are a mere three of those many diverse stories.

India’s academic rigor allowed Vinita Voogd’s artistry to thrive

Born and raised in New Delhi to progressive parents who supported her artistic obsessions, Vinita Voogd studied in India’s finest institutions. By the age of three, she was enrolled in a competitive private school intended to educate the nation’s future leaders. Modeled after Britain’s prestigious Eton College and Harrow School, instruction took place ten hours a day, six days a week to students who were studying calculus and trigonometry by middle school. 

A cultural Vinita

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Vinita Voogd’s prints are on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #72, through September 3

But rigorous study also meant monumental freedoms to follow individual passions. The school supported and indulged every whim. “From 2 to 5 p.m. every afternoon, students could study whatever they wanted,” Voogd says. “If you wanted to build remote control cars or make a plane, the school would hire an engineer to teach you. You could spend the afternoon in the sculpture studio. We had students doing drama, music, singing, anything you can think of.” 

It prepared Voogd well for her education at the University of Delhi, India’s equivalent of Harvard, where she received her BFA. Of the thousands of applicants to the College of Art, they accepted only 24 students. “You can imagine the education we got,” Voogd says. “The professors were all the highest in their fields. The best in India. Many of them had studios in Europe, so we were getting all the information and techniques from Paris, Berlin, and London.”

Though neither of Voogd’s parents were artists – her mother was an attorney and her father a businessman who came from a long lineage of bankers – they embraced her passions. At the age of 6, she announced her intent to become an artist. At the age of 20, she fell in love with an American man. “Some Indian men married European or American girls, but I was one of the first Indian girls to marry an American man.” 

Voogd followed her new husband back to Orange County, where she discovered her passion for printmaking. Though all her printmaking education was done in the United States, under the initial instruction of John Paul Jones at UCI – one of America’s foremost printmakers in the 1950s and 60s – Voogd brought a body of both discipline and deep knowledge of art with her from India. 

Today Voogd incorporates pieces of India into her prints. The vivid colors and saturated tones call out to India’s rich and vibrant culture. “Sometimes I’ll finish a piece, not knowing why I was putting those colors together. I’ll hang it in my studio and realize my mom had a sari in those colors, or my grandmother had something like that. The women wear really colorful clothes and a lot of my colors definitely come from that imagery.” 

Likewise, many of the papers she uses for printmaking reflect a diversity of cultures, particularly Korea, Thailand, Tibet and Nepal, as well as India. Some papers are embossed and other embroidered, a traditional Indian technique that goes back centuries. The papers are then mounted on a western rag paper. “In a subtle way, it’s a combination of eastern and western traditions in the print,” Voogd says. 

A cultural Voogd print

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Voogd’s prints reflect her cultural heritage through color choices, handmade papers, and her eye for composition and design

The prints contain flora and fauna, hints of nature that Voogd didn’t experience growing up in the crowded city of Delhi. “I started doing landscapes when I came to the U.S. because the landscape was so different here. The plants, the mustard growing on the hills in the summer. I’d never seen a Joshua tree. All that was so different.” But there are also elephants, camels, and other Indian iconography, reminiscent of home and reflecting a true melding of Voogd’s childhood traditions with her adult life in the United States.

“You have no choice but to draw from your experiences,” Voogd says. When she interrogates some of her young undergrad students about their artistic choices, they often confide they don’t know where their inspirations originate. “That’s fine,” she tells them. “But 20 years from now, you’ll know where it came from. Every decision comes from somewhere. It’s something subconscious. Even if you can’t articulate or understand it, hopefully one day you’ll know.” 

Yuri Kuznetsov’s charmed Russian childhood led to a life of artistic whimsy

“My childhood was a big time,” says mixed media artist Yuri Kuznetsov. “I feel like I was a child for 20 years. Thirty years. Maybe still. Now, every day, I’m playing, playing, playing.” 

Born and raised in Almet’evsk – the center of Russia’s oil industry where his father worked as an engineer – Kuznetsov’s childhood was fueled by folktales and physical and artistic freedoms. At age 9, after expressing an interest in art, his mother whitewashed his bedroom walls, armed him with colorful cans of paint, and allowed her son to spend his days expressing his imagination. He painted bright animals, animated people, cars, and creative creatures. When he ran out of room, she whitewashed over the old and Kuznetsov started anew.

Bedtime stories fed his creativity. Russian folklore and Egyptian iconography remain recurring themes in his work. “When mother said time for bed, I told her I like it so much, read me more,” he remembers.

A cultural Yuri

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Yuri Kuznetsov showcases one of his favorite acrylic oil paintings entitled “Funny Company”

Alongside the childhood tales, his mother read Pushkin and Dostoevsky. There were only two television channels that played an hour each day, so screen time was limited to 30 minutes. Kuznetsov spent his free time painting his walls, reading, or wandering the outdoors. “I could walk the streets without parents,” he says. “It was very safe, with big blocks of buildings that had playgrounds, parks, and yards. We knew everyone. We’d stay out until our parents called us home through the window.”

Although Kuznetsov was inspired by the work of Pieter Bruegel, Mikhail Vrubel, Magritte, Van Gogh, and Chagall, an academy teacher gave him some important artistic advice early in his career. “He told me, ‘You can study all these famous artists. But if you want to learn, you must go outside the building, lay face-down in the grass, and watch everything going on there. Look at all the creatures, listen to all the sounds. When you start to love nature and learn by experience, you can become great. Once you can imagine it, you can translate it into art.” 

Despite these whimsical freedoms, Kuznetsov’s education and artistic instruction were strict. In addition to the rigors of Russia’s traditional coursework in literature, history, mathematics, and science, training in the arts was regimented and controlled. By 14, Kuznetsov was sent to the bigger city of Kazan for his studies, and then to St. Petersburg where he attended the highly acclaimed Mukhina Art Academy. 

There, his training was methodical and disciplined. Students weren’t allowed to study certain artists – or even borrow books from the library – until they demonstrated certain proficiencies. “We were practicing all the time, all day long, making sketches, paintings, drawings,” says Kuznetsov. “We drew animals in a realistic way, practicing and gaining a lot of experience. Because once you know how to draw it realistically from experience, then your imagination can create something new.”

While working in Sochi from 1990 to 1998 with a group of artists and poets who called themselves the “Guild of the Beautiful,” his talents were spotted. He was recruited to the United States through the “People to People International Art Ambassador Program.” 

The rest, as they say, is history. Kuznetsov has been creating mixed media acrylic oil paintings ever since, showing his work in galleries, museums, and art shows across the United States, Germany, and Russia. His 24-foot public mural entitled Adventure – which depicts various fantastical creatures riding in a white limousine – has been on display at the corner of Ocean and Forest Avenue since 2002.

A cultural Yuri wall

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Yuri Kuznetsov’s work is on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #17, and the Laguna Art-A-Fair, Booth B8 through September

“Of all the evils in the world, I choose none,” says Kuznetsov. “I prefer not to show dark sides. My only goal is to make people happy and smile.”

Pegah Samaie’s work responds to Iran’s cultural misogyny and oppression 

In contrast to her colleagues, Pegah Samaie’s upbringing in Tehran neither cultivated her creativity nor fostered her ambitions. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country embraced a patriarchal system, severely restricting the rights of women. In 2017, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked the nation 140th out of 144 countries for gender parity. From voting restrictions to mandatory dress codes, women also have no legal protections against domestic violence or sexual harassment. Men dictate their movements, their careers, their clothing, and other personal decisions. 

A cultural Samaie

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Pegah Samaie’s oil paintings are on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #28, through September 3

“I felt that in my family,” Samaie says. “Household and society are together. When society wants something, that’s how families behave. My father had two girls and we lived in an apartment, so he wanted to be more in control of the family.” 

Beyond her personal freedoms and the onerous rules and restrictions during childhood, her father also wanted Samaie to study engineering. “Because I wanted to study art, I had a lot of difficulties in my family,” she says. “My father controlled me and didn’t want me to be an artist. He pushed me to study engineering. I studied two years and then got married. My husband pushed me to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Samaie lived in Tehran for thirty years. When she immigrated to the United States with her Iranian husband ten years ago, a psychological window opened for her. Free from her father’s career expectations, Samaie pursued an education in the arts, receiving both her BFA and MFA at the Laguna College of Art and Design. 

Now her work explores the contrast between her upbringing and her new life – and freedom – in the United States. The paintings represent the oppressions she experienced in Iran and the opportunities she’s enjoyed since leaving. “I eventually learned to use my past experiences consciously and subconsciously to express the reconciliation I am making with all the storms of my life,” she says. “In rising from the wreckage and painting politics and issues related to women’s rights, I am recovering, reclaiming, and redesigning what it means to be a woman.” 

Her paintings depict a lot of lace, which is worn during wedding ceremonies and represents marriage. In one of the more disturbing pieces entitled Am I Homemaker?, Samaie paints a five-year-old naked girl holding a doll. She’s surrounded by her childhood drawings but draped in the traditional red lace wedding attire. Child marriage in Iran remains a common phenomenon. Girls as young as nine can be married against their will, with over 40,000 girls under the age of 14 married in the past five years. The image explores the tension between a little girl’s childhood fantasy to playact motherhood with her doll, and an Iranian patriarchal culture that strips her of innocence at an early age. 

A cultural Samaie Wall

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“Am I Homemaker?” lays bare Iran’s cultural tolerance for child brides and the oppression of girls from a young age

“Women behind lace reflect my observation and experience as a woman in Iran,” Samaie says. “Lace is like a wall that separates women from the outside world. It shows them being pushed into darkness and into being second class.” 

Influenced by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, Samaie’s paintings are filled with iconography and symbolism. Birds represent freedom. Cups are the symbol of women, representing their inner strength and ability to bloom. Mars, a planet we’re only beginning to understand and explore, represents the aspiration of a new frontier for women. Fire signifies Iranian wars, protests, and revolution, while the sky holds hope for freedom and limitless possibility. Samaie’s women exist inside both spaces. 

Although Farsi is Samaie’s primary language, art is her voice. Her paintings provide the purest expression of her experiences and aspirations. They allow her to directly communicate both her past pain and the joy she’s now found in motherhood. Leaving Iran lifted Samaie’s veil, but art gave her the language to talk about it.


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