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Sawdust Festival stalwarts look back on half a century of creativity

Leslie Edler

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of young hippies found a place to sell their art among the eucalyptus trees in Laguna Canyon. The Sawdust Art Festival, which began as an alternative to the more traditional Festival of Arts, reflected the times: precariously built three-story artist booths; macramé and tie-dye shirts for sale; peasant blouses and long hair; children, Hare Krishnas and an occasional goat running loose; unscheduled concerts; a sword swallower; the smells of pot and potluck dinners.
As those hippies grew up, so did their festival. Today Sawdust is one of Southern California’s most popular summer art festivals, attracting more than 200,000 people each season. Reflecting that, it has 10 full-time staffers, a roughly $2 million budget and a professional public relations team. As the festival celebrates its 50th year (it started in 1965 but skipped 1966), Coast caught up with four longtime artists who credit Sawdust with starting, and sustaining, their careers.

Doug Miller, 68, painter, Laguna Beach
“Man, if they said Tarzan was going to swing out of the trees, you’d believe it,” Doug Miller says. He was recalling the year – 1971 – that he first sold his paintings, which included a barn scene and a cat portrait. He is a musician too, and that year hauled an upright piano onto the festival grounds. “Just to have it,” he says. “The hippies were coming over and banging on it.”

Miller had grown up in Long Beach and joined the Navy. But he didn’t doubt that he wanted a life as an artist, and when a friend told him about Sawdust, he wanted in. One of the festival’s most devoted photographers, Miller has observed an inimitable world over the years: The woman who sold $2 clay figurines – which hadn’t been fired and so quickly crumbled – out of a shoe-shaped booth. Phonies like the birdhouse maker who turned out to work for a factory that made the houses. “That was classic,” he says.

Sawdust was also the scene of his marriage to Becky, in 1979. She wore a yellow dress; he wore a blue suit. They got married near a eucalyptus tree and later celebrated with a potluck dinner at a friend’s booth. The next day, they were back at Miller’s booth.

Now Miller sells roughly 400 paintings a year at Sawdust, roughly 75 percent of his annual business. Though he misses the freedom of the earlier years, he says the art is far better now than it was. “People taught each other to be better artists,” says Miller, who paints Laguna Beach ocean scenes. “The quality is very good.”

Nikki Grant, 70, jeweler,  Laguna Beach
As a twentysomething living in her home state of New York, Nikki Grant was preparing for her wedding when her big brother, Mark Blumenfeld, returned with stories about his new home in Southern California. “He was telling me about grapes and oranges and sunshine and nice people,” she says. “So four days before my wedding, I canceled it and came out here.”
Grant, who made ceramics at the time but later switched to jewelry, first sold her work at the 1967 show. Her brother also sold his pottery at that festival. She says the music of that time, such as the Mamas & the Papas song “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” described how she felt then: blissful, free, creative. In the early shows, there wasn’t even a fence around the grounds, and the exhibitors took turns providing night security.

“It was just like constant energy flowing back and forth in the canyon,” she says. “I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I imagine this was like the best version of Burning Man, in a eucalyptus grove.”

Grant met her husband, Jay, through Sawdust. He was the festival’s sales manager for decades and is now president of the Sawdust board. Their son, Micah, grew up on the grounds in the summers. As a boy, he bounced up and down in a Johnny Jump Up that Jay nailed to the sales booth. Now Micah and his wife help Grant with her jewelry business.
At her first show in 1967, Grant says she made $2,000 – “enough to live on for the year.” The business she does at Sawdust has allowed her the freedom of being a full-time artist. Today she can afford to hire people to run her booth so she can focus on making more jewelry.

But it’s easier for an established artist, especially one who bought her property years ago. Grant says she’s worried for the future generation of artists, few of whom can afford to live in Laguna Beach.

“Do we hold onto the past or look forward to the future? There’s that balance. I’m anxious as an oldtimer to get younger artists coming in,” she says. “How can you afford to be a potter and live in Laguna Beach?”

Mike Heintz, 73, jeweler, Dana Point
A South Dakota native hoping to be a watercolor artist, Mike Heintz came to Laguna Beach in 1968. But he was also hoping to avoid the Vietnam War draft, so he found a job teaching art at Whittier High School. He later went on to graduate school at Cal State Fullerton and ended up with offers to teach in community colleges. “I just decided, you know what, I’m 30 years old,” he says. “It’s going to be one or the other: teach or try to be an artist. I bailed on the teaching.”

It was Sawdust that allowed Heintz to sell his first pieces of jewelry – and made him feel part of a vibrant community. “We all grew up together, spending our summers together, building that show from scratch,” he says. The show stayed open until midnight in those days, and the party typically continued into the morning. He recalls buying a giant wooden barrel that served as a post-show hot tub at his place.

“Everybody was a character,” he says. He remembers Crazy Horse, a skinny, tall sword swallower “with this short little girlfriend who came up to his elbows. She would carry his swords around on a pillow. He would swallow swords for a dollar. He was unusual, but we had a lot of unusual ones.”

Heintz feels most proud of what he and his friends accomplished: a professionally run show that raises enough money for a benevolence fund for local artists. Sawdust may once have been a time of hard partying for Heintz, but these days it’s just plain hard work. He gets up early and heads to his garage to do some forging and other noisy work that he can’t do at night. He mans his booth from noon until 10 p.m. then returns home and goes back to his work bench until about 1 a.m.

Heintz says he has a couple of more years in Orange County before he plans to head back to South Dakota and make jewelry that he can market toward the motorcycle crowd. “I can’t afford to live here anymore,” he says. “None of us can.”

Leslie Edler, 63, jeweler, Dana Point
As a 19-year-old Corona del Mar High School graduate Leslie Edler sold her first piece of gold jewelry at the 1972 festival. “I just wanted to sell my art,” she says.

“I was very happy with it because I could travel during the year and work in
the summer.”

Certain memories stand out: The Hare Krishnas chanting and dancing through the festival in their flowing robes. The last visit to the grounds from the “Greeter,” the Laguna Beach tourist legend who wanted one last glimpse of Sawdust before dying a short time later. A ceramic artist who worked in a leopard-print Speedo. And the closing night parties, with the sounds of blenders mixing rum chi-chis. “I was single and it was a great life,” she says.
But if Sawdust provided her with some fun as a young woman, it gave her stability as she got older. She worked the festival after she was married and had three young children; she worked after she got a divorce. Sawdust “enabled me to support them on my own,” she says. “We scraped, but we could get by. It’s defined my life. It allowed me to be a full-time artist and support my children.”

And when tragedy struck – one of her twins, Chase, died from injuries in a 2006 skateboarding accident – her jewelry booth remained open for business, thanks to help from other artists and her friends. “Some of the artists finished my booth for me, finished decorating it for me. I wasn’t there. I had just dropped everything. I have no idea to this day how it was done, but they organized two people a shift to come in for the show while I was gone and took care of everything.” After a while, Edler got back to work that year, making new jewelry. “If it weren’t for that show, I probably would have fallen apart,” she says. “It kept me focused so I didn’t drown in my sorrow.”


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