You Can Find A-Fair Amount of Whimsy at Laguna Beach Festivals

Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to the Times Orange County

Art used to be such a personal thing. Now it's summer fun for the masses, and in Laguna Beach, it seems there's a festival for every palate. The Sawdust Festival even has a fish taco stand. Wahoo!

10:30 to noon: The Sawdust Festival built its reputation on quirkiness, and while it's clear after 26 years that "quirky" is commercially viable here, that doesn't make it any less delightful.

You can find that whimsical birdhouse of your dreams, ceramic toothbrush holders also suitable for chopsticks, and "dysfunctional teapots." Also check out ceramic masks with one eyebrow and with hair made from tennis-racket strings ($150), kiln-melted "slumped glass" chess sets ($250) and koa wood rocking chairs ($4,000).

Raymond Don Caruso makes scrimshaw--etchings on ivory. "No new ivory," explained the artist's wife, Marsha Caruso. "Most is prehistoric ivory from Alaska, from fossil woolly mammoth or walrus." He's carved walruses on walrus tusks, mammoths on mammoth tusks, a humpback whale on petrified whalebone and a shark on a tooth "from a very large shark, millions of years old."

Toe-tally Shakespeare offers toe rings, thumb rings and "half rings" for middle joints by Patches Cunningham. Are toe rings the latest symbol for going steady? "So old it's new again," said booth attendant John Bates. "This was my engagement ring; my wife gave it to me 11 or so years ago. I only take it off to prove they do come off."

Painter Julita Jones' "Fleamarket" has dogs falling out of the sky, Bob Bonn's New West Art includes "Cactus Cat." Douglas Miller is working on Birthday Painting No. 15, "The Naughtiest Thing You've Ever Done," in which festival visitors share the naughtiest thing they've ever done and he writes it on the canvas.

A formula determines Miller's placement of peoples' birthdays, names and comments: "12/12? 12 plus 12 is 24 divided by 4, no remainder, corners 1, 2, 3, 12 by 12 inches in corner 4, that's about right. . . ." He thereupon recorded in tiny letters the naughtiest thing I've ever done. He's also done favorite pet stories. "The Naughtiest . . . " has 2,000 names so far; completed paintings have 7,000. In 24 years at the festival, he's used 80,000 names.

Admission to the Sawdust Festival is $5; seniors, $4; children under 12 get in free.

Noon to 12:30: Wahoo's Fish Tacos, Deb's Deli and Sawdust Saloon anchor one end of the Sawdust Festival grounds. Wahoo's offers California-Mexican cuisine. Soft tacos are $1.75, burritos $3.75; both are available with blackened fish, and both come surfer style--"like surfers buy them from street vendors in Baja," explained Brazilian-born manager Wing Lam. "Soft tortillas instead of hard, grilled fish instead of fried, no-lard black beans instead of refried, white rice instead of that red-orange stuff, and no heavy sauce. High protein, low fat. When we go to Mexico to surf, we sit next to those taco stands and eat about 20 of 'em." Slake that thirst with the rice drink called horchata.

12:30 to 1:30: Down the road, a wire sculpture of the Eiffel Tower welcomes you to Art-A-Fair; nearby is a sign in German that says " Wilkommen ." The fair must be international in scope.

Floral fare is typical, but by no means universal. Gourds by Michael offers painted gourds and free gourd seeds. Fanciful furniture includes rustic work in wood by David Lee Sullenger and Sculpchairs by Herzel Maymon--who also brings you alligators with snail shells on their backs running with canes--made from almost anything.

Underwater subjects include Robin Knilans' "In Your Face" papier-mache acrylic polymer works such as "Eels Go to Cozumel" ($1,500). A mermaid with prominent nipples and nails graces a surfboard from Michael Brindley; his geometrically shaped canvases feature underwater and outer space scenes--together, as in dolphins swimming past planets.

Framing her collage paintings in .34-gauge aluminum lends Gloria Rossi's works the feel of icons. "It didn't start out that way, although I will admit that I'm a spiritual person," Rossi said. Of one work she said, "That's our dark side. Just a tiger with its tongue sticking out, but it really worked. I'm into the human condition, and I've lived, you know."

So little cottages and country gardens aren't all you'll find at Art-A-Fair, but sometimes you'll wish they were. Roger Humphries' "The Volunteer" ($500), for example, depicts a fireman--er, firewoman--breasts bared, wearing a fireman's coat and hat and lace undies.

In William Wooten's booth, near his dance musculature series, hangs a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh: The artist uses honest paint / To represent things as they ain't / He then asks money for the time / It took to perpetrate the crime.

Admission to Art-A-Fair is $3.50; seniors, $2.50; children under 12 get in free. (Discount hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., free; Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., $1.)

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