Artist David Milton still recalls sitting in his North Laguna home during the 1993 fire.
A truck he had planned to use to take art to an out-of-town show sat in front of his house.
Milton wondered whether he would also need it to take himself away.
“It was just a shift of the wind,” Milton said.
Luckily for him, the fire turned toward Emerald Bay and left him, his house and his oeuvre safe.
“But there were a lot of artists who lost everything — inventory, studios, homes ... it was like a baby Katrina for Laguna,” Milton said.
So it was no big stretch for Milton, a Sawdust Art Festival exhibitor who paints watercolors of classic landmarks and vanishing Americana, to agree earlier this year to become the treasurer of the festival’s Benevolence Fund board of trustees.
The fund benefits Laguna Beach artists, regardless of their Sawdust involvement, in times of dire need.
The fund’s 15th annual art auction will be this Sunday, where everything from original paintings to jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, art glass and clothing will be available for bidding.
Funds raised have gone to fire, flood and landslide victims, as well as exhibitors who have been unable to continue working due to medical emergencies.
“I’ve seen a lot of people helped by it,” Milton said. “Life turns on a dime sometimes; things happen.”
To date, about $100,000 has been distributed to 80 artists, who can apply for $1,000 a month for five months total per year.
“We annually help out usually about a half a dozen artists,” exhibitor and fund trustee Scott Moore said. “Each artist is eligible for a $1,000 monthly grant, with up to five grants monthly per incident.”
Moore said illness is the typical reason for a request.
“The average artist doesn’t have health insurance,” Milton said.
“Artists are facing the same problems as the rest of the nation. The average American is only one health disaster away from bankruptcy. They’re doing everything they can, but they’re still slipping through the cracks of the system.”
It’s rare for a non-Sawdust exhibitor to request assistance, Moore said, although the fund is open to all Laguna Beach artists.
“Ninety percent of the time they are Sawdust artists,” he said.
Many items at the auction will be sold at bargain basement prices.
“Some of the best art I’ve been able to collect has been from auctions,” Milton said.
“Those whom we have helped in the past are usually the ones who donate their work most generously,” Moore said.
“A lot of them who receive it tend to become really strong contributors.”
A special item up for grabs this year is a collaborative mixed media sculpture by several Sawdust artists, overseen by exhibitors Kathy Jones and Betty Haight.
Professional auctioneer Tony DeZago will conduct the event for the 12th year in a row.
The fund also raised income from last year’s sale of boxed holiday cards based on winners of the city’s holiday palette competition; the cards were devised by Mayor Toni Iseman.
Milton joined fellow exhibitors Moore and Sherry Bullard earlier this year on the fund’s board of trustees, replacing John Eagle.
Eagle was one of the board’s founding members, and remained as a trustee until he felt the fund was financially stable enough to be left in new hands, Milton said.
Milton also cited the efforts of longtime exhibitor Ann England, another major architect of the fund.
“She is really the one who got the thing started,” Milton said. “She’s just one of those extraordinary community activists.”