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Hansen: Old-timers’ stories are in stock at the Sawdust

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Dion Wright and Bob Foster sit in Foster’s booth reminiscing about Sawdust Festivals gone by.
(Dave Hansen)

 In case you didn’t know, artists don’t like drywall.

Specifically, Sawdust Festival old-timers believe that the current crop of artists should put more elbow grease into their booths.

On a recent balmy night with fewer visitors than normal, Dion Wright and Bob Foster were reminiscing in Foster’s booth.

To call it a booth is a bit of an insult. It’s really a workshop, storefront and part-time home. It’s as if he somehow lifted the whole thing from his garage and plopped it onto the grounds.

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“We don’t build drywall boxes,” Foster says, with the authority of a craftsman. Indeed, his leather work immediately garners respect. You can tell by the seams, suppleness and design.

This is no Coach bag cutout. And he has the scars to prove it.

As Foster is talking, exhibitor and airbrush artist Star Shields stops by and takes a seat. He doesn’t ask for permission. You can tell he has done it many times before.

Three old men with stories to tell. The only thing missing is a campfire and whiskey — or maybe just a campfire.

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“Right here you’ve got 150 years of Sawdust,” Foster says, pointing with a crooked, calloused finger.

“That and a dollar could buy you a cup of coffee,” Wright jokes. “Wait, you can’t even buy that nowadays.”

The banter continues uninterrupted, volley after volley. The inside jokes are sometimes hard to follow. The names come and go like the visitors who walk by and smile, instinctively knowing there’s mischief happening in booth 425.

“Write that name down,” Foster orders, launching into another tale from 50 years ago.

“We’re still pretty unique even though there’s a lot of touristy stuff out there,” Shields says, trying to be helpful.

I ask them about the loss of institutional wisdom. In other words, what happens when all the old-timers pass, just as two did earlier this year, John Skaggs and Marilyn Zapp.

Will the Sawdust lose its roots? Will it move more toward commercialism?

“I’m more worried about the planet, not the show,” Wright says. “We were commercial right from the start, but we weren’t doing it very well.”

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On his business card, Wright says he makes “welded sculpture and other art.” He’s like that — sometimes short but always wryly funny.

“There are two things that will always save the Sawdust: the seniority system and the non-jury system,” he says.

If you get him going, Wright can tell stories all night about how the Sawdust started after it split from the Art-A-Fair — it was originally dubbed “Sawdust Splinters.” The short story is pretty easy to get.

“Because we were hippies,” Foster says, smiling, raising his well-worn plastic cup as if giving a toast.

No one objects.

“This is social continuity for the people in here,” Wright continues. “It’s more continuity than my personal life.”

He quickly cites failed relationships and multiple jobs, but there’s always been the Sawdust.

If there is any worry about the current state of art, it may involve compromise.

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“The individual has receded in favor of the corporation,” Wright says. “The art is getting better but not in the way I hoped.”

With the planning for next year’s 50th anniversary of the Sawdust already in the works, the artists are thinking about how to make it special. Many feel like going retro — as in not using drywall for the booths.

Others just want to use the opportunity to tell funny stories about the old days.

“Write this name down too, Joe Miller,” Foster says.

In a lengthy, humorous tale, Foster explains that right after the rift between the Sawdust and Art-A-Fair, the Sawdust artists had this light show for its first event. Miller was a wizard with lights, apparently, and had eight carousels of images that rotated through the projectors at the time.

Unfortunately, one of the carousel trays accidentally got swapped out with a personal, family one — like, a really personal one. So in front of city leaders, fledgling Sawdust organizers and a shocked audience, a woman’s natural childbirth was shown instead.

Welcome to 1968 Laguna.

Foster admits that mistakes where made but primarily out of inexperience.

“I was the first grounds manager and had no clue,” he says.

Wright says it forced everyone to be creative. For example, they found an old, broken fire truck, hauled it to the grounds and proclaimed, “This is a booth.”

This fearless — or perhaps reckless — approach is what separates the Sawdust from every other festival. But when it comes to making a living, the art still has to be good.

Who wins?

“The guys with the good stuff,” Foster says. “If you’ve got something real to sell, there are buyers — discriminating buyers.”

At that point, a man cautiously approaches Foster’s workshop, not wanting to interrupt the discussion. He gingerly picks up some a leather sandal and asks if he could get fitted.

Foster looks around at the group, then over to the man and says, without really asking, “Can you come back in a half hour?”

He doesn’t have to add, “We’re talking here.”

“Sure, sure,” the man says, putting down the sandal. “I’ll come back.”

Once out of range, Wright says, “Bob believes that the customer is only sometimes right.”

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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