A History of the Sawdust Festival
By Jay Grant, FORMER Sawdust Festival President ~ Updated MAY 2017
In the mid-1960’s, the culture in America dramatically changed. Personal freedom of expression broke out among the nation’s youth, including a vibrant arts and crafts movement. Here in Laguna Beach, that creative energy brought together an influx of young artists and craftspeople as well as talented local artists who had been juried out of the only summer art festival in town. Fueled by a passionate desire for artistic independence and wanting something new, fresh and exciting, the Sawdust Festival was born.
The Roots of the Sawdust
In 1965 a small group of Festival of Arts rejects and other artists decided to start a new summer art festival, setting up shop in a vacant lot across the street from the present Laguna Beach library. They enjoyed moderate success but lacking strong leadership were unable to stage a festival in 1966. But by 1967, new leadership emerged, determined to continue an alternate summer festival, forming the Laguna Beach Artists and Gallery-Owners Association, with Dolores Ferrell elected president. They leased a spacious dirt lot on the North Coast Highway, rallied a number of disenfranchised artists and craftsmen, and this second attempt at a new art festival became a hit. Shortly after opening, sawdust was spread to keep the dust down with local media dubbing the show the Sawdust Festival. The debate goes on to this day over whether those first two years in town were the beginning years of the Sawdust or precursors. Either way, it was the next year that would prove pivotal – 1968.
The Move to Laguna Canyon
Walter and Dorothy Funk owned a two-and-a-half acre eucalyptus grove at 935 Laguna Canyon Road. Engaged in copper-enameling art, and wanting to be in the alternative show, the Funks offered their site for lease to the newly elected board, led by President Hal Pastorius and Vice-President Ed Van Deusen, and in May of 1968 it accepted. The rent for the 68 festival? $900 for the entire summer. But as the show neared its mid-July opening, trouble was brewing. Miffed by the “hippie” feel to the show and the out-of-the-box ideas for experimental art, a number of mostly painters bolted. At the June 24 membership meeting, four board members resigned and with 60 other artists went back to the site of the 67 show on the North Coast Highway, forming what was called the “Sawdust Splinters,” their name later changed to the Art-A-Fair. Ferrell quickly went looking for replacement artists, finding some 50 mostly Laguna crafts people. The newly-named Sawdust Festival managed to open as the irrepressible artists hastily rallied to create the first artist village on the new property.
The Formative Years
1968 thru 1971 laid the foundation of the Sawdust which continued to lease the property from the Funk’s. Decisions were made that established key values, such as all artists must be Laguna Beach residents and their art hand-made. Then in 1972 the Sawdust took off, becoming immensely popular with the public. These were the years of elaborately designed booths, built mostly with old barn wood, some reaching four stories in height. Huge crowds milled shoulder to shoulder, coming to see and purchase some of the finest art and crafts created anywhere but more than that, to experience the electric atmosphere of the Sawdust. It was a true happening, The Sawdust board then made one of its most important decisions, and with Van Deusen heading up negotiations, agreed to purchase the property from the Funks. The price? $225,000 with the board then deciding to charge admission for the first time – 25 cents for a week pass. In 1973 the attendance went up 30% and it continued to increase in the ensuing years, reaching a high of over 325,000 visitors in 1978, with almost 10,000 attending on a Sunday in July, probably the largest one-day crowd in Sawdust history. In 1975 the name of the corporation was changed officially from the Laguna Beach Artists and Gallery-Owners Association to the Sawdust Festival.
1980’s and 90’s
The growth of the Sawdust began to necessitate the need for staff and also permanent structures as the Sawdust moved forward into the 1980’s and 90’s. New city codes and regulations set parameters on booth building and grounds layout and the artists established By-Laws and Show Rules to govern themselves. By the end of the 80’s the present façade had been built. Classes, workshops and artist demonstrations continued to make sure the Sawdust adhered to its non-profit status by educating the public. Scholarships were awarded to deserving and talented high school art students. Then in 1991, after several years of discussion, a Winter Fantasy was started, a holiday-themed art festival wonderland that has grown into a huge success. Currently the Winter Fantasy runs five weekends in November and December.
2000 to Present
The Sawdust enjoyed some banner years from 2000 to 2006 and then survived rather well the economic collapse of the American economy over the next several years. Full-time staff increased and gradually the Sawdust became a year-around arts program, highlighted by Sawdust Art Classes, hands-on art projects during the summer and winter festivals, and the Sawdust Enrichment Fund which supports philanthropic art programs as well as outreach into schools. But the biggest draw for our visitors continues to be the remarkably talented artists of the Sawdust who create some of the finest art and crafts found anywhere in the world.
Note – for an in-depth look at the history of the Sawdust Festival, our 50th Anniversary History Book is for sale both online and in our gift shop during the summer and winter festivals