Curiosity Shopping in the Beach Cities

Fire in the hole! Photo by Lisa Black

Against all logic, I determined it was too hot to look at art. So instead of an air-conditioned museum, I set out to do some window-shopping—cue the Hank Williams song to inch like a mindworm through my brain for days—or, more accurate, booth-shopping at the Sawdust Festival.

It’s been decades since my last visit. It was likely way back in the 20th century when I worked the booth of a dressmaker. It was all about the print choices for those simple cotton garments, geared toward willowy women who’d look good in sacks. The dressmaker didn’t even give me one to wear while I’d sit there, listening to each version of the melodrama being performed on the corner stage as people would offer me cocaine, which I’d rebuff. They’d be offended that I demeaned the quality of their stash, so they’d be more insistent that I sample both their generosity and their totally good shit. Bleh. 

Sawdust Festival 2019 had a plethora of archival images on display. Photo by Lisa Black

The actors would parade through the grounds in mere minutes, gathering up an audience with drumbeats and song, then leading them back to the stage. But in the 21st century, the Sawdust is a jam-packed maze, with no room for boisterous parades or theater. Live folk-rock blares from an “entertainment deck.”

I didn’t expect the druggie vibe of long ago, and I didn’t get it. Except what’s channeled into the 3-D art in booth No. 420! John Lucero makes glowing, vibrating, reaching-toward-your-face, neon-colored artworks of molecules, mandalas and dancing numerals. He offered up 3-D glasses, cracking jokes in a jolly fashion while turning off the lights to switch on the blacklight. That’s when a guitar neck practically poked me in the eye, until I took off the glasses and it retreated to the surface of the painting. That’s how hot-weather art should behave.

Wandering about, I came upon a caged studio inside which an inferno was raging. I looked down to observe a neatly coiled hose with a heavy-duty nozzle and the label “hose on for small fires.” The glass-blowing studio is a signature feature of the Sawdust, but it was empty. Later, I accidentally re-wandered by the cage and lucked into a live demo of a vase in the making. It’s as fascinating in real life as it is on public television.

I could have spent a buck in Studio One to mold air-dry clay into a jellyfish hump. I watched as kids aged 7 and up were led through this process, which included poking holes so a tealight set underneath could later make it glow. But the whole thing was uninspiring, except for the child who pulled and stretched the stuff rather than making it into a sphere, then squishing it flat into a pancake as instructed. All the while, she bellowed proudly about what she’d do with it when she got back to Arizona. I’m still keen to understand that little rebel’s intentions. 

The malaise that set to work on me as I watched the molders was in part because of lack of air. It’s as if the booths have climbed the canyon walls and tripled in number under eucalyptus trees that have quadrupled in girth since the first festival in that grove 53 years ago. I felt woozy in the density until I overheard a guy telling his friends that the small bit of visible sky was periwinkle. They mocked him, but he was right. That purple-bluish dome cooled me off. That’s when I truly felt compelled to look.

Refreshing periwinkle sky above the Sawdust Festival grove. Photo by Lisa Black

I most coveted the sea-glass jewelry of Nancy Deline, whose work gives found shapes beautiful intention; the smooth whites, blues and greens seem to float along the links of a vintage chain. She is a lovely person, who spoke to me as if I were well-acquainted with the tools of her trade. Other attractive objects were doorbell plates welded by Weir, chunky metal adornments by Dr. Neon and swirling dyes on silk by Michaela. 

Sitting in her corner booth like a soothsayer, Adriana was making Pysanka Ukrainian eggs. A color and design legend to the art form she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, hangs on the wall to explain the potential effects of the intricate patterns on each chicken, duck, ostrich and goose egg she meticulously paints. You can select one because it viscerally appeals, or you can curate a power egg to protect or transform your life. Or you can find out why some guy described the sky with such an accurate vocabulary: “Purple = night sky; periwinkle = mental strength.”

As for booth-shopping in a literal sense, I didn’t see any I wanted to move into as if it were a tiny house—except for the windmill and the waterwheel. In the early days of the fest, barnwood was ubiquitous, and multistoried tree houses and spaceships were crafted with skill and unfettered imagination. Archival photos of these trippy structures made before city codes set in and barnwood became scarce are displayed in a dark tent, offering a hazy trip down memory lane. 

The theme of 2019’s Sawdust is “Expect the Unexpected.” But for me, meeting the makers whose work lured me to them was the point, as it always has been.

And my curiosity got goosed. 

Whether I purchase anything by summer’s end is up in the air. I’m holding out for the inaugural Redo Vintage and Maker’s Market closing off three blocks of Del Prado in Dana Point on Aug. 25. Curated collectibles and up-cycled, artisan and repurposed goods by pro gleaners such as Luxe Rust and Radical Relic, or assembled by renowned bodysurfer Mark Cunningham from detritus left by wipeouts at Banzai Pipeline, are on tap. Craft beer, live music and a touch tank from the Ocean Institute will keep things local. Maybe I’ll find an old classroom map of the U.S. or the world. Or a botanical illustration with bugs and periwinkle flowers. 

Or maybe just the impulse to keep on looking.

Sawdust Festival, 935 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3030; Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Through Sept. 1. $5-$9.

Redo Vintage and Maker’s Market on Del Prado, Dana Point; or Aug. 25, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Free.

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