Move to Laguna is first step to Sawdust

Robert Holton had the desire to be an exhibitor at the Sawdust Art Festival.

He had years of experience as an artist. He had connections in the industry. There was only one problem: Holton lived in Anaheim, and Sawdust rules require that participants live in Laguna Beach for two years.

Problem solved.

Holton, who runs a sign-making business and takes commissions through his side company, Drizzle Pop Art, signed a lease a month ago for a tiny apartment off Pacific Coast Highway. Whether he makes the lineup for Sawdust in 2015, his first year of eligibility, is up to chance. But the artist, who called appearing at the festival a personal "bucket list" item, is OK with making a gamble.

"It's a huge investment to get in," Holton said last week in his living room, relaxing on the couch in paint-splattered clothes and shoes. "As I've told some of my friends — worst-case scenario, if I don't get in, is I get to live in Laguna Beach for probably two years."

That's not a bad deal, whatever the sacrifices. At Holton's house in Anaheim, his studio walls could hold about 50 paintings; here, it's down to eight. Since the work space takes up his Laguna garage, he parks on the street most of the time, although he can wheel the art supplies back if he needs to fit his car inside.

With the Anaheim house converted to a vacation rental home, and the artist's son set to take over One Day Signs, Holton is practically starting over to make it into Sawdust.

But a bucket list is a bucket list, and he hopes to have an eye-catching set of entries — many of them vivid reproductions of cereal boxes, wrappers, signs and other consumer staples — ready for his first year in the festival.

So how good a chance does Holton have of making Sawdust? As good as any newcomer, really.

Every year, according to General Manager Tom Klingenmeier, about 240 artists apply for the festival's 190 booths. In February, the staff draws numbers in a lottery to determine who places for that summer. The most experienced artists — dubbed the "senior classes" — make the cut automatically, while newer applicants hope for a slot up to 190.

It's not a total loss if they don't, though — artists who draw No. 191 or higher sometimes still get in if another artist offers to share space.

Holton, at least, has some experience on the Sawdust grounds. A few years ago, he exhibited his work at the Winter Fantasy, which doesn't require artists to live in Laguna. When those numbers spin in the drum in February 2015, though, he'll have to stand back and wait.

"He could get No. 105, or he could get No. 235," Klingenmeier said. "It's just the luck of the draw."

Holton got his first exposure to Sawdust when a friend introduced him to it three decades ago, but he didn't pick up the brush in earnest until 2003. His wife had died from breast cancer, and to help cope with grief, Holton painted images of sights from their past — candy wrappers, cereal boxes and other logos — and placed them around the house.

A friend's brother, who worked as a professional artist, urged Holton to join a show in Beverly Hills, and he ended up selling 10 paintings over two days. It wasn't hard for the artist to see why his subject matter hit home.

"The people could connect to the things I was painting, like a Pez or a Tang, something back from my youth," Holton said. "A lot of people who buy my art are in the 50 to 60 age range, so I kind of connect with them. Everybody kind of knows what era we're from."

Drizzle Pop Art posts an extensive list on its website of people who have collected Holton's paintings: singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda and others. In 2007, Holton got a singular honor: Coca-Cola displayed his work at a pop-art exhibit in Atlanta alongside sketches by Andy Warhol, whom Holton counts as an influence.

If the newly relocated Laguna resident makes it to Sawdust in 2015, he plans to keep applying indefinitely. If a couple of years have passed without luck, he may uproot himself and travel — to San Diego, to Seattle, even to his ancestors' home country, Ireland.

Still, Holton would like to make his artistic home in Laguna.

"There's definitely a vibe here that I haven't seen anywhere else," he said.

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