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The Festival of Arts – Laguna’s “Intellectual Carnival” – celebrates 90 years of creativity 

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When the Festival of Arts began in 1932, its creators envisioned an “Intellectual Carnival.” They proposed a week-long festival to attract tourists and counter the severe economic impacts of the Great Depression. That August, roughly two dozen artists hung their paintings on trees, buildings and fences in a vacant lot behind the old Sandwich Mill on the corner of Coast Boulevard and Forest Avenue. The next year, more artists exhibited on El Paseo Street, a once bucolic tree-lined block behind Hotel Laguna. Other artists opened their home studios to the public. Music, banners, parades and entertainment set the stage for what would become the annual “Festival of Arts,” one of the top art festivals in the nation. Annual visitors grew from 2,200 that first year to roughly 225,000 today. The Festival of Arts (FOA) has been named one of the Top Five Art Fairs in the West and Top 5 Art Festivals in the nation by USA Today. The Orange County Register named it the Best Place to Buy Original Art. 

This week, the FOA welcomed guests back to celebrate their 90th anniversary. One hundred and twenty artists, including 14 newcomers, opened their booths to visitors on Tuesday (July 5) showing work across 16 mediums. 

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Guests once again crowd the grounds to celebrate the opening of the Festival and its 90th anniversary

“Avid art collectors and festivalgoers will have an outstanding variety of fine art to browse and purchase as they walk among the artists’ displays,” said Marketing and Public Relations Director Sharbie Higuchi. 

Though the tagline “Intellectual Carnival” fell by the wayside long ago, it remains an interesting description for what goes on behind the scenes in the artists’ studios. I caught up with six of this year’s exhibitors to get a peek inside their minds and their process, learning about their inspirations and influences, and getting some artistic advice. 

Painting with light: photographer Christopher Allwine 

“I’ve always had a thing for urban exploration,” said photographer Christopher Allwine. “Something about the atmosphere of wandering around abandoned sites fuels my drive to create.”

Allwine, a five-time FOA exhibitor, centered this year’s theme around remote wrecking yards in the middle of the desert. “Daylight hours were spent scouting vehicles and envisioning how I was going to tell their stories, all the while factoring in the very surreal context of the environment,” he said. “Even though the vehicles depicted are barely intact, I feel like they are inherently evocative enough to be effective ‘models’ for this group of photographs.”

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Christopher Allwine’s photographs can be found in booth 48

Born into a family of creatives that goes back generations, both of Allwine’s parents worked in the film and television industry. “Having that kind of endorsement at a young age played a big role in my development as an artist,” he said. “I’m also a very curious and inquisitive person by nature. I love classic cars and that passion carried over into this series.”

Darkness is Allwine’s canvas. He uses light as a paintbrush to create “light paintings” with his camera. The effect, drawing perhaps from those parental influences, is wholly cinematic. “I think the best art needs to showcase the artist’s technique along with provoking a visceral response,” he said. “In this particular series, the dynamic mixture of night photography and light painting at a remote scrapyard in the middle of the desert fulfilled that for me.”

Allwine’s advice to new artists? “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” he said. “Especially in a field as oversaturated as photography, it’s imperative to stand out from the crowd. Modern advances in camera technology have expanded the boundaries of the art form by leaps and bounds, which is great for anyone who is just starting out. Also, don’t hesitate to put yourself out there when it comes to applying to art shows. The experience of showcasing at FOA has done wonders for my career and confidence. It continues to serve as motivation to keep on creating.”

Coloring the world with wonder: watercolorist Kirsten Whalen 

“Books are wonderful windows into other worlds,” said watercolor artist Kirsten Whalen, who’s shown in the FOA since 2008. “It has been fun to create these little tableaus about the dreams, struggles and surprises that books contain. The possibilities are endless.”

Whalen began her book series last year. Her highly detailed and whimsical watercolors often incorporate antiquarian books, historic maps, space exploration and all manner of transportation (both metaphoric and literal). Whalen fills her worlds with boats and spaceships, hot air balloons and wheelbarrows. Inspired by other artists working across every medium, her popular map series incorporated several road trip songs. “The titles of these pieces are often lyrics from music I love,” she said. “I enjoy creating my little tableaus because, like a piece of poetry or a song, they are pieces of some larger story that the viewer can complete.”

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Kirsten Whalen’s watercolors can be found in booth 97

Whalen’s favorite piece from last year’s exhibition – Some Time Ago – was selected as the welcome banner at the front entrance to this year’s Festival. “It was a fun piece to compose and paint,” she said. “My COVID meditation piece.” And in the context of the Festival’s 90th anniversary, an appropriate piece to reflect on the passage of time. 

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Also helping Whalen reflect on the passage of time are her grandchildren. “They significantly impacted my current work,” Whalen said. “They remind me how amazing the unfettered imagination can be. They look at the world with such fresh eyes. They also remind me how powerful the stories we create – and the stories we listen to – can be in understanding our world and in shaping how we think and feel.” 

What artistic advice has served Whalen well over her many years of painting? “It’s the long version of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan,” she said. “Nothing will happen if you don’t sit down and get to work. Work begets work. To make it easier, try not to end your workday by completing a project. Try to leave something in the studio to sit down and do tomorrow. It’s much easier to start your workday by finishing something than starting your day with a blank page. I work on several pieces at a time partly for this reason.”

Guided by faith: printmaker Anne Moore 

Printmaking is an oft misunderstood medium. People frequently fail to appreciate the uniqueness of each print and the way prints are produced. “I usually need to tell people that I produce my art on a manual printing press,” said 11-year-exhibitor Anne Moore. “They are prints because they are made on a press, not because they are reproductions. Rather than doing multiple copies of an image, I do monoprints – one-of-a-kind original prints created by many passes through the press. This allows me to get interesting layering and texturing.” 

Moore works on several pieces at one time, which frees her to set aside pieces that aren’t working and print over them later. “All my best pieces are multiple layers,” she said. 

Not only does Moore physically print multiple layers, but the subject matter of her pieces also works on multiple levels. “I love hinting at history or other cultures through layering, texturing, mark making and calligraphic characters,” she said. “My husband and I spent 32 years working with an international organization that does linguistics, literacy and Bible translation for unwritten languages. That gave me an appreciation for different orthographies and writing systems. Even though I don’t understand the symbols of a language, there is beauty in the marks. I often use carved linocuts to create asemic writing (basically made-up letters) to suggest our two-dimensional communication.”

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Anne Moore’s prints can be found in booth 26

Moore also enjoys incorporating both manmade and natural shapes and textures into her work. “It’s hard to walk by a trash can without finding something of interest that can create a compelling surface design. And I love carving linocuts to incorporate organic and unique shapes,” she said.

The size of Moore’s press limits the scale of what she can print. “I’d like to work larger,” she said. “That is a challenge I would like to figure out.”

Moore’s Christian faith quietly influences her work, the beauty she intends to express and the titles she selects for her pieces. “Also, being married to a full-time artist means all those conversations in the artistic sphere permeate our house.”

Twice a year, Moore and her husband pack up their supplies and go somewhere for a two-to-three-week art-making hiatus. “We used to rent an art studio in Oregon, but also friends in Northern California and Idaho have let us use homes where we set up and work without interruption,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for the past 10 years or more and our time is always productive, fun and inspiring.”

Besides FOA, Moore has exhibited at Sandstone Gallery in Laguna for more than 15 years. “Being surrounded by some of the best local abstract artists pushes me to produce my best work,” she said. 

What advice has stuck with Moore over the years? “Jasper Johns said, ‘Do something. Do something to that. And then do something to that.’ That’s pretty much how I work – both organically and intuitively,” Moore said. “I try one thing and another, some working and others needing salvaging.

“Also, the idea that good art comes out of a lot of art reminds me that not every work will be a masterpiece. If there aren’t mistakes or ‘failures,’ then I’m probably not growing or learning anything new.” 

Wearing the artistic hat of an explorer: oil painter Toni Danchik

Growing up in South Africa and understanding the challenges of rural life has been the inspiration behind three-time exhibitor Toni Danchik’s Africa series. In 2012, the founder of Wells of Life (an organization with a mission to drill a thousand water wells in Uganda) asked Danchik to create a painting for their first fundraiser. 

“I immediately felt challenged,” she said. The opportunity led her to produce several subsequent paintings later auctioned at Wells of Life fundraisers.

“Because I live in beautiful Southern California with its inspiring coastline, it’s hard not to paint its beauty,” she said. “Going out with my plein air buddies to paint is one of my simple pleasures. It’s interesting that again it’s centered around water, but in a different sense.”

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Toni Danchik’s oil paintings can be found in booth 67

In the process of developing her style, techniques and even choice of subject matter, Danchik often plays the “what if” game in her work. “What if I had only three colors on my palette, how would I paint this…?” she asks herself. “What if I painted this with only my left hand instead of my right hand? Or what if I painted with a palette knife? What if I were the artist Van Gogh or Rembrandt – how would I have painted this? 

“With this ‘what if’ game, I’m putting on the hat of an explorer, experimenter or inventor and the curious side of my brain comes alive. New ideas and inspirations start to develop. In this way, I also explore all the possibilities of color, design and brushwork to bring expression to my subject matter and it brings me to a place of joy.”

No surprise that Danchik advises young artists to never stop exploring different styles, techniques and mediums. “Your creativity is like a seed inside you that has to be watered and nurtured,” she said. “Taking workshops and acquiring skills pours water on that seed that will unlock the creativity until you germinate and blossom as a skillful accomplished artist. Painting is often like riding a horse – you fall off, and sometimes even get hurt, but you dust yourself off and climb right back on again. When you’ve done a bad painting, don’t let that define you. Keep painting. Do another one. If you keep making the same mistakes, it’s time to take a workshop with an artist you admire.” 

Freezing time: Bronze sculptor Victor Fisher

Sculpture artist Victor Fisher is obsessed with capturing the human form. Athletes, dancers, even the simple grace of the body at rest. The three-time FOA exhibitor enjoys that connection made between art and audience. “Seeing women who studied ballet in the past relive their youth through my sculptures – Jamie or Stephanie – is fun,” Fisher said. “I enjoy interacting with people as potential clients or those who simply enjoy my work.”

Fisher encourages young people to pursue art even if they don’t intend to make a living from it. “Even if it’s for their own pleasure,” Fisher said, it’s important to have an outlet.

He gets much of his artistic inspiration from attending the ballet, observing athletes and his own love of animals. “I’m constantly observing color and shape when out in nature,” Fisher said. “Each dance sculpture depicts the dancer at an instant of peak performance or at rest. I try to freeze this moment in time because – at this time – the dancer is tremendously graceful. Going to museums and looking at art masterpieces gives me inspiration for new concepts in my work.” 

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Victor Fisher’s bronze sculptures can be found in booth 37

Fisher has several new pieces in process. “I’m hoping to have Earth at the show within the next few weeks and Water shortly after that. They are both continuing pieces in my series that began with Evening Wind.” Fisher’s modern pieces have allowed him to experiment with form, tone and texture in new ways, using color to simulate the look of stone on his bases.

Whether it’s the long stretch of a dancer’s leg when en pointe, the curve of the spine or the flowing tresses of hair, Fisher’s attention to detail in each sculpture shows the mastery of his craft. In addition to the Festival of Arts, Fisher has shown at the Laguna Art-A-Fair, the Desert Art Museum and the California Art Club among other shows. He won a gold medal at the American Artists Profession League of New York.

Newcomer’s style marries the past and present: oil painter Kirah Martin 

Twenty-four-year-old Kirah Martin is the youngest exhibitor in this year’s festival. Her Baroque-style period paintings – inspired by art history, mythology and biblical stories with a twist – are challenging in both execution and content. 

“I’m interested in creating cohesive bodies of work and making my collection an entire experience,” said Martin. “My biggest inspiration comes from art history. I love the compositions of the Baroque period. The lighting and subjects interact in ways that create an emotional experience. I also think it’s fascinating that centuries of art have biblical or mythological portrayals. Every piece has a story behind it. I wanted to create work that could give viewers the same experience with a modern twist.”

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Kirah Martin’s oil paintings can be found in booth 53

While Martin’s accomplishments at this age are impressive, even more astounding is the fact that she has no formal training or education in the arts. She’s entirely self-taught. This summer is the first time she’s shown her work to the public. “That is very intimidating,” she said. “I was nervous to face rejection and highlight my inexperience. But I’m glad I overcame that worry because I have learned so much through the process and have accomplished a true dream of mine.”

In addition to painting, Martin is also a dance instructor and has done some choreography. “I have studied and worked in interior design. I enjoy fashion. And I love to write,” she said. “Having passion and seeking beauty in one aspect of life feeds inspiration into another.” 

Every one of Martin’s paintings tell a story. There’s the statue of David, bisected so he appears half statue and half man. There’s Adam’s hand, adorned with a wedding ring, reaching for a ripe pomegranate, split open to reveal the tempting seeds inside. Then there’s Sarah, who has a set of expansive dove wings sprouting from her eyes. Martin says Adam Reminiscing and Sarah Seeing will be the hardest paintings to part with if the time comes, because of the number of hours and tears of frustration that went into creating them.

Martin encourages anyone, but especially young people, to put themselves out there. “As cliché as it sounds, you never know the possibilities open to you if you don’t go for it,” she said.

Other events not to be missed

In addition to this year’s 120 artists, there are several special events happening on the grounds throughout the summer including Family Art Day, the annual Runway Fashion Show, summer art workshops and classes and daily docent tours. 

The Festival of Arts stage will be filled with nightly music. From annual staples like the Salty Suites, Jason Feddy, Pretzel Logic and Tony Guerrero to the Tremendous Tributes series including tribute bands honoring the Beach Boys, Luther Vandross, Joe Cocker and the Music of Motown. Don’t forget the popular jazz, wine and chocolate series happening on Thursday evenings. 

“I see musicians as artists – musical artists,” said Susan Davis, director of Special Events and Member Services. “They are a part of the Festival’s mission to support and promote the extraordinary value of all the arts. Just as a painting or sculpture can create a sense of excitement, so can music. This summer’s music program promises to be fun and exciting.”

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Mary and Everett Blanton attend the Festival of Arts Preview Night on Saturday, July 2 

For a complete listing of events, tickets and other information, visit the Festival of Arts website at www.LagunaFestivalofArts.org or call 800.487.3378. The Laguna Festival of Arts app is a convenient way to keep track of artists, events, ticketing and scheduling. Download the free app, click here.

For more photos by Mary Hurlbut, see slideshow below…

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