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Honoring tradition in the 21st century: How the Sawdust Festival has kept its bohemian roots alive for 55 years

By MARRIE STONE

If you want to understand a place and its people, look to its artists. They are the makers, the creators of culture, and the keepers of a town’s traditions. 

Laguna is lucky in its art. Luckier still to have three distinct festivals that reflect our town’s diverse tastes, values, and personalities. And while Laguna and its demographics have dramatically changed since the mid-1960s, many of its bohemian roots endure. 

This year, as the Sawdust Festival celebrates its 55th anniversary, we look back to its beginnings and how those early hippie values – handmade craftsmanship laced with a healthy dose of peace, love, cooperation, and community – paved the way for its modern-day success. 

Honoring tradition entrance

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

The entrance to the Sawdust Festival, circa early 1980s

In the beginning…

Since the town’s inception in the early 20th century, it’s been a mecca for the arts. Back in the 1930s, the Festival of Arts drew painters from around the region to show their work on easels and along fences a few weeks each summer. Plein air, watercolor, and oil paintings dominated the scene. 

But a beatnik vibe accelerated in the canyon in the 1960s. Young artists wanted to experiment and break away from the landscape and ocean scenes that took hold in the 1920s. When the Festival of Arts implemented a jury system in the mid-1960s, many experimental artists and craftsmen found themselves on the outs. They took their avant-garde spirit across Laguna Canyon Road and created their own carefree environment in contrast to the traditionalists. Originally dubbed the “Rejects Festival,” they embraced the outcast identity and traded on their countercultural strengths.

“Born in the late 1960s, the Sawdust was a child of the times,” writes jeweler Mike Heintz in Volume 1 of The Sawdust Festival: The Early Years (1965-1979). “It was much more than a place for artists to show and sell their artwork. It was a happening, a beautiful, colorful collage of people creating a unique environment where nothing of its kind had existed.” Art was as much performance as product, Heintz says. “Costumes were very important, and people dressed with flair, especially the ladies.” You also needed as much hair as possible. “I can still see those flowing tresses, fat mustaches, and long beards,” he says. The line between artist as person and performer blurred as Sawdust exhibitors carved out their own identities. Heintz recounts names like Nebula, Luna, the Rainbow Kids, Crazy Horse, Anna Banana, Rodeo, Critter, Dulcimer, Tiny Tapper, and Star. 

Jay Grant, former Sawdust president and spouse of longtime exhibitor Nikki, walked into the Sawdust Festival for the first time in 1973. “The festival was electric,” he writes in The Early Years. “Huge crowds milled shoulder to shoulder. Music, lights, and colors vibrated everywhere you looked. It’s funny what sticks in your mind. Old barn doors. Peasant dresses. Boots. Macrame. Creeping Charlies. Folk rock. Towering sculptures. Quaint booths. Beautiful women. The show still alive and pulsating at midnight. Long beards and longer hair. Pungent smells. Excitement and creative energy everywhere you looked. Right away something grabbed my heart. Rustic, funky, charming, and brimming with the oddest collection of individuals you would find anywhere.”

The Sawdust became a gathering place for Laguna’s eclectic personalities. The Hare Krishnas frequently stopped by, necessitating a 1973 board ruling that allowed them to only chant once while on the grounds. Jugglers, mimes, strolling musicians and magicians, and a band of belly dancers were just a few of the spontaneous pop-up performance artists. “The belly dancers were a fixture here for 20 years,” says mixed media artist Tom Belloni, who’s shown at the Sawdust since 1971. “But the dancers got bigger bellies and a little ‘old in the tooth’ as they say.”

Honoring tradition Belloni

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Mixed media artist Tom Belloni, who began at the Sawdust in 1971, shown at his booth today

Streaking was a fad around 1975, and the Sawdust was the perfect venue. “It was scary but freeing as we ran quickly around the grounds that afternoon without a stitch on,” remembers Marla Burns, also in The Early Years. “I remember rounding a corner and having to jump a baby carriage that was in the way. And one whole aisle was filled with cameras as word got out and people were waiting for us.” 

“The Sawdust only had three rules,” says Tracey Moscaritolo, one of the women instrumental to the Festival’s founding and earliest exhibitors. “Live here, do your own work, and be kind to each other.” 

Moscaritolo remembers frequent electrical outages that required artists to store candles and flashlights in their booths. She kept a bucket hidden behind her iconic windmill because the portable restrooms couldn’t keep up with the number of attendees on the grounds. “We couldn’t even get a food truck out there because we didn’t have enough people,” she says. “So we brought our own lunches, and we did our own security detail.” 

This atmosphere of experimental fun also sparked a lot of innovation. “We were really ahead of our time back then,” says Star Shields, who first showed in the Sawdust in 1973, but didn’t return until 1985. “We had one of the first lasers ever seen. No one knew what it was. We’d drag this bulky penlight and power cord up onto the hill and point the laser beam down on the ground. Back then, there were dogs and cats and kids running around. They’d go crazy. No one knew where this thing was coming from.” 

The grounds also featured one of the first solar houses, experimenting with alternative power back in the 1970s. Kinetic sculptures, life-sized risqué statues, and a colorfully intense atmosphere were all part of the early Sawdust scene.

When Eiler Larsen, Laguna’s official town greeter, lay on his deathbed in the mid-1970s, he requested one last trip through the Sawdust Festival to say goodbye. An ambulance picked him up and carried him by gurney through the grounds. “I’ll never forget that,” says Belloni. “That was kind of a moment.” 

The great booth race was on

In the late 1960s, while Americans raced for the moon, Sawdust artists used their own creative powers to construct booths that were out of this world. Castles, pagodas, boats, planes, bird houses, log cabins, and country stores all decorated the grounds. “In the early years, you could do anything you wanted with the booths,” says Belloni. “Artists would display dolls and figurines up in the trees. We had two, three, and four-story booths. The upper stories were for playing games and the ground floor was for business. The booths up against the hillside had secret rooms in the back. Artists had their party situations going in the back while the front was used for the hard work of selling pottery or whatever. A lot of activities were going on behind the scenes.” 

In 1973, instead of using wood and nails, Star Shields built a spaceship. “I wanted to do something different from the usual wooden barn look. So in the middle of this funky western-style village, we decided to create a spaceship beside the mountain.” The UFO was made from chicken wire and a wooden frame. Jewelry cases were displayed on the lips of the windows. Customers could look through the portals at airbrushed shirts that hung from the ceiling. “Then this guy came in wearing a jumpsuit with a big tank on his back. He sprayed foam all over the inside and outside. We sanded it down and painted it. There it was.”

Honoring tradition spaceship

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Star Shields (far right) poses with the Rainbow Kids in front of his spaceship in 1973

Moscaritolo owned another iconic structure on the Sawdust grounds. “We created this windmill out of Japanese shoji screens,” says Moscaritolo. “We asked a painter to paint some things on it. It turned out great. It looked like stained glass. But the first time we turned the motor on, the blades flew off. I thought we were going to behead someone.” Moscaritolo soon found a smaller motor in a Santa Ana junkyard and the windmill became a Sawdust staple for several years. 

Honoring tradition windmill

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Tracey Moscaritolo’s iconic windmill debuted in the early 1970s

Then there was the music 

Music is important to every era, but the 1960s had a special hold on its audience. War, counterculture, and social unrest were all reflected by some still renowned musicians. “In the early days, we had an open-door policy for musicians,” says Belloni. “We had a harp lady who would come with her dog and her purple flower collections and play her harp. We had a couple coming in from Louisiana with a tambourine, a guitar, and a top hat. They would play folk music for collections.” 

Eventually, Belloni says, the Sawdust realized they needed to control the entertainment. “As far as the amount of it and the quality, they didn’t want musicians and artists competing for attention and disturbing business. So they started hiring acts and designated places to play.” The roving musicians gave way to three separate stages on the grounds where music can now be heard all day every day.

Then there was the debate over amplified music. “Were we going to have loud, amplified music or keep it in the genre of folk songs?” Belloni says. “So it evolved, like everything else on the grounds.” 

The Sawdust still exudes that 1960s vibe. “The music recreates the ambience of the 1960s,” says Hedy Buzan, who has shown her paintings in the Festival since the late 1980s. “The artists are booked for that reason. Whether they’re reinterpreting The Beatles or doing a 1960s take on jazz, there are a lot of young people today who connect with that.”

“The music really creates the show,” says Belloni. “It’s become a huge part of our budget. A lot of people come just to enjoy the music.”

The Sawdust Festival grows up

But let’s go back to how – and when – that evolution happened.

Five years after the Sawdust began, the artists were forced to purchase the three acres of land they once leased. No one had any money, and the landlords threatened to sell. 

From its financially humble roots in 1968 – with only $600 in startup money, $3 membership dues, and a puppet show that had already accrued a $1,000 loss – the Sawdust managed to purchase the property in 1973. “We didn’t have any money. None of us had money. But we scraped it together,” Moscaritolo says.

To cover some basic costs and begin accruing funds to purchase the property, the Sawdust began charging 25 cents for admission. Fees were antithetical to their values. “We were so afraid to charge admission. It was only a quarter, but everything was supposed to be communal and free,” Moscaritolo says. “We agreed if people didn’t want to pay, we’d just give their quarter back.”

“As we matured, the show matured with us,” says Belloni. “It got a little less volatile. The craziest artists burned out or aren’t with us anymore. It settled down into a staple of talented people. That was the core of the art group. And we always bring in new talent every year.” 

By the late 1970s, some Festivalgoers could feel the 1960s magic slipping. Claude Kurtz wrote a letter to the Sawdust board in 1979. “What we need is to offer to the public an ‘adventure.’ When I was first in the Sawdust, the public could come and feel that maybe something really strange might happen to them, like being sent on a weird drug trip. They would see so many unusual things. This appeals to them, the sense of the different and things strange.” Kurtz proposed mud pit wrestling, dog acts, fire dances, nude races, making the grounds dark and scary. “Let’s just dare to be different,” he wrote. 

But time had moved on. “It changed gradually,” Moscaritolo says. “Mostly because of rules regarding the structures and building codes, and the 1993 fire. That started to mold us because we had to comply with the city and fire department. Which, of course, is not a bad thing.” 

Moscaritolo says the introduction of harder drugs into the community also contributed to the evolving culture. “I think psychedelics changed everything,” she says. “People that smoked pot were nice and easy to get along with. The speed element in the hard drugs changed everything.” 

By the 1980s, the town and those original Sawdust exhibitors had both grown up. As the Festival slipped into its second decade, building and fire codes continued taking some of the electric sizzle out of those early years. Bigger crowds created bigger needs for plumbing, electricity, and parking. The City imposed code restrictions, bringing those behemoth booths into compliance. “We were learning as we went along,” Moscaritolo says. “We didn’t have a game plan. We just kept making it happen.” 

The essence of the Sawdust’s roots remains

While some of the colorful 1960s spirit may have faded a bit, much of the Sawdust’s original soul survives. It remains entirely run, owned, and operated by artists, eliminating outside demands and influences. “When I first started, I thought the Sawdust was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Belloni.  “Because the artists own the show, run the rules, and make the decisions for the grounds, we have control. We control our booth space, we make our own work, and we’re able to promote ourselves. That’s really unusual in today’s world.”

That autonomy and lack of corporate influence also appeals to the visitors. These days, many of us are screen-weary and hungering for human connection. There’s a voracious appetite for authenticity and artisanship. 

“The artist, craftsman, and entrepreneurial individuals make everything they sell and manage to economically survive in today’s world. That’s definitely a throw-back,” says Buzan. “Now we have Etsy rethinking that sort of craft business online. That’s a reaction to the virtual world, and people are responding to it. It has its roots in the 1960s.” 

Silversmith David Nelson, who started in the Sawdust in 1969 when he was 17, still embodies those bohemian roots. He’s bartered his jewelry for clothing, dental work, and even tires for his truck. “If I could trade in the old-world way, I would trade,” he says. 

honoring tradition old Nelson booth

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Silversmith David Nelson’s original country store booth circa 1971

Honoring tradition new Nelson booth

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Silversmith David Nelson’s booth today. Nelson, who began in the Sawdust in 1969, had been collecting 100-year-old wood from old barns and historic buildings in town. All his wood burned in the 1993 fire, so he was forced to begin anew.

Location, location, location

Some of the Sawdust’s enduring enchantment, several artists say, lies in its unique location. “Sometimes I go out there early in the morning, and it’s just a magical place,” says Moscaritolo. “The hills, the waterfall. It’s a special gift we have there.” 

Honoring tradition waterfall

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Photo by Marrie Stone

The Sawdust’s waterfall and windmill have been part of the grounds since its beginnings

“There’s a sense of nostalgia when you walk in,” says Belloni. “I think it’s the physical space as much as the personalities of the artists. There’s a certain ambience – the eucalyptus trees, the smell of the grounds, the proximity to the ocean, and the unique mini-climate of the canyon. Then you add the booths and the artists themselves, who are like decorations on the grounds, and it’s all consistent.”

Nelson has maintained the waterwheel for so long, the place has become known as “Nelson’s Landing.” Silversmith Greg Thorne, who’s shown in the Sawdust since 1969, keeps the magic of the wishing well spirit alive. The waterfall, the old trees, the sawdust on the ground – they’re all of an old-world piece.

A new generation embraces the bohemian vibe

Now a new generation of artists are taking their cues from the Sawdust’s established old guard. 

Three years ago, in the summer of 2018, Kate Cleaves and her fiancé Nick Flores, vacationed in Laguna for the first time. “I had no idea how amazing the town was,” she says. “But then we walked into the Sawdust. All the hair stood up on my arms. I turned to Nick and said, ‘I think we just found our home.’” 

Cleaves and Flores uprooted their Bay area lives and moved to Laguna. They first showed in the Sawdust’s Winter Fantasy festival in 2019 and finally met the residency requirements to show this summer. “Everything that’s happened since has reaffirmed that first impression,” Cleaves says.

Remarkably, Cleaves (who specializes in fantasy and fairy art) took over the iconic fairy booth run by Melissa (“Missy”) Belland, who elected to take this year off. Cleaves keeps Missy’s fairy-spirit going by providing colorful wings for folks to wear around the grounds, as well as the fairy dust returning customers have come to expect from the booth. 

Thorne, who sits a few booths down from Cleaves, has become something of a Sawdust mentor to her. “Greg keeps the whole vibe going from the early Sawdust days,” Cleaves says. “We both do things to keep the magic alive for the kids. I have a basket of fairy wings that I let people wear around the Festival. Greg does the wishing well with pennies for the kids.”

Cleaves immediately embraced the old booth-building spirit of the Sawdust. Even if those early-day structures have been downsized by city codes, artists still build their booths out of old wood and salvaged supplies. “My booth is built from scraps of wood we had laying in the carport for over a year,” she says. “Nick was literally dumpster diving for building material. People are sharing things, trading wood. It’s a whole community, a bohemian culture that’s helping each other.”

Honoring tradition Cleaves

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Photo by Nick Flores

First-time summer exhibitor Kate Cleaves poses in her fairy booth (in the space traditionally occupied by fairy artist Melissa Belland)

Like the old wood making room for the new, so too are new generations rising from the old. “What’s remarkable are the generations of exhibitors in the show,” says Buzan. “Some are children of artists who have become artists themselves with their own children. It’s really like family that way.” 

Shields noticed something similar about his clientele. “Some of the women were girls that I painted when they were kids. Now they’ve grown up and bring their own kids,” he says. “Every day, I get someone saying, ‘You painted my face when I was six-years old. Now here’s my daughter.’”

Honoring tradition Star

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Star Shields originated airbrush face painting and body art back in 1979. His airbrushed clothing has been worn by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, the Moody Blues, and other musicians.

Our sleek 21st century world – with all its gadgets and screens and interpersonal disconnections – craves the authenticity of true artisanship and a slower pace of life. That’s the Sawdust’s secret. As we’re discovering, a good dose of the 1960s is exactly what the 2020s need.

David Nelson agrees. “You ask what keeps the Sawdust’s spirit alive? It’s the heart and soul of us original guys,” he says. “There’s a lot of us who’ve been around here for a long time trying to keep that feeling alive.” Nelson talks while sizing a ring for a waiting client. “You wouldn’t have this country without George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin,” he says. “You wouldn’t have the Sawdust without us.” 

Honoring tradition young Nelson

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Silversmith David Nelson, who started at the Sawdust in 1969 when he was 17, posing in his booth

Honoring tradition old Nelson

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Silversmith David Nelson working in his booth today, 52 years later

For more information about the Sawdust Festival, go to www.sawdustartfestival.org.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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