Grueling Sawdust Festival closes another season with grit

Grueling Sawdust Festival closes another season with grit
The last musical lineup for this year's Sawdust Festival, which wrapped up its 51st year on Sunday. (Photo by Dave Hansen)

It was hot and muggy Sunday for the last day of the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach. Jeweler Leslie Edler sat on a wooden, three-legged stool during a rare break in foot traffic and stared off into the distance.

She looked exhausted.

"I'm too tired to think," she said.

The Sawdust finished its 51st year Sept. 3 and is the marathon of art festivals.

For 66 days, artists work their booths 12 hours a day. If you consider a regular work day is an eight-hour shift, add another 33 days. That's nearly a third of the year, sitting, standing and smiling for the customers.

For the last few weeks, it's been uncomfortably hot. Some booths didn't have shade.

"It's been a challenge," said Robert Holton, owner of Pop Art Painting. "It's like the trade show that never ends."

The payoff comes after all the art is tallied. This year, while official numbers are not yet in, the consensus among several artists is that it was a pretty good year — not great but OK. Some others didn't do as well, perhaps because of location or just a fickle market.

Despite the relatively small size of the Sawdust grounds, booth location matters. The seemingly random aisles benefit certain walking patterns.

The bottom line, however, is whether the art holds up once a visitor finds a booth.

"If you have good art, they're going to find you," said painter Karen Petty.

Every year usually brings some changes among the shoppers — what they like or don't like, desirable price points or demographic trends.

This year there was nothing dramatic, artists said. If anything, shoppers seemed more random than ever.

"It's changing demographics," said Edler. "It's getting more diverse."

Edler's visitor log had people from Friendswood, Texas, Western Springs, Ill., and many other small, little-known towns.

Photographer Sean Hunter Brown, who also exhibited at the Festival of Arts, said there was an end of the summer rush but otherwise, it was hard to see any new patterns — except for the heat.

"Usually they buy medium and small prints," Brown said. "But this year there was more big stuff, less consistency."

Brown did notice that there were a lot of out-of-town buyers.

"Most of my buyers were out of the area, whereas most of the time it's more mixed," he said, citing a lot of people from the East Coast and even one from Uruguay.

"The heat was kind of a bummer," he added.

Despite the grueling hours — or perhaps because of it — the Sawdust artists always tend to band together. A lot of them use the word "family" to describe it.

You can see it in the little things, like getting lunch. Typically, one person makes the run for nearby friends. They order "the usual" or maybe switch up the protein on the salad from Evan's Gourmet Bistro.

Others try to save money by bringing their own snacks and beverages, tucked away in a cooler.

The sense of connectedness and loyalty is obvious.

Artist Isaac Anderson had to attend a wedding out of state on the last day, so he asked Edler to cover for him. He wrote clever little cards throughout his booth directing people to "Leslie," as if everyone is on a first-name basis. In case they didn't know Leslie, he added parenthetically ("jeweler @corner").

Everyone probably does know Leslie, however, because she's been at the Sawdust for 45 years.

"There's nothing like this anywhere in the world," she said, admitting that she's a bit of a cheerleader when it comes to the place.

But it's been her life, she said, and without the friends she has here, she doesn't know if she would have survived some ups and downs.

Through a death of a son, a divorce and other challenges, the Sawdust has always been there for her. She got teary-eyed on Sunday thinking about it all.

"It's been a long haul but it's been worth it," she said.

Like many of the artists, she will get just over two months before gearing up for the Winter Fantasy festival.

What will Edler do in the meantime?

"I try to sleep as much as I can," she said, smiling.

The discipline, rigor and sacrifice that make up the Sawdust often go unnoticed. And in the end, the rewards are left up to the whims of window shoppers, who often have no clue to the value and originality that goes into the work.

The Sawdust remains the dusty, sweaty underdog of the Laguna art scene. And we are better off for it.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at