Artist David Nelson, who has been with the Sawdust Art Festival since 1969, has never missed a Winter Fantasy.
“For 17 years, we’ve work really hard to make sure it’s not the Sawdust with Christmas lights,” Nelson said.
Although the lights are plentiful, the art show, which boasts 170 exhibiting artists this year, is not just a popular alternative for mall shopping.
“It’s become a really wonderful, happening community event,” Nelson said.
Mayor Toni Iseman will light the new Sawdust ArtisTree at 5 p.m. Saturday during the Opening Night festivities.
The Sawdust ArtisTree is decorated with one-of-a-kind, exhibitor-designed ornaments — sales of which will benefit the Sawdust’s Art Education Fund.
It joins a plethora of holiday trees created by local organizations; the winners of a competition for best tree will also be announced at the ceremony.
Laguna Beach residents with identification receive free admission beginning at 2 p.m. Now in its seventh year, the ceremony has become a Laguna tradition.
New this year are 26 artists in their Winter Fantasy debut; they come from as far as Wisconsin.
The event also includes activities for kids, including daily visits from Santa, a new Reindeer Barn and a kids’ playfield filled with real snow — and surrounded by a winter wonderland mural.
In addition to thousands of one-of-a-kind gifts, the festival also hosts free art classes, painting and glass-blowing demonstrations by exhibitors, and an array of performances ranging from traditional holiday music to Cajun zydeco.
Each artist’s booth is built by hand, and decorated for the holidays by the exhibitors. Three acres of grounds are punctuated by tall eucalyptus trees.
Exhibitor Ryan Gourley has constructed one of his popular ice castles above the festival’s main entrance.
He hid an overabundance of hidden visuals on either face of the castle for the careful observer, from the Eye in the Hand religious icon of many cultures to a sawblade placed as a decorative element.
Artist Erica Batchelder, whose silk accessories are popular holiday gifts, also has been a part of the Winter Fantasy since its inception.
“I remember doing the first one,” she said.
Since being asked this year to volunteer for the Winter Fantasy committee, she said she has developed even more appreciation for the event by planning for it and decorating.
Wednesday, the sounds of hammering and power tools mingled in the grounds as exhibitors dressed up their booths for the season.
Two wooden nutcrackers stood at attention at the front entrance, awaiting their future placement.
Artist Rosemarie Rossi had already set up her booth; her “gourdaments,” one-of-a-kind ornament people crafted from gourds, hung merrily on a white wire Christmas tree.
Down the way, other artists strung holly across the top of their booth, dangled delicate icicles and turned filing cabinets into wrapped presents.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” said impressionist painter Marlyse Ruess, who exhibited in the summer and is on the Winter Fantasy committee for the first time. “It puts you in the Christmas spirit.”
SAWDUST ART FESTIVAL
WHAT: 17th Annual Winter Fantasy
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25; Dec. 1, 2, 8 and 9
WHERE: 935 Laguna Canyon Road
ADMISSION: $5.75 for adults; $4.75 for seniors 65 and up; $3 for children 6 to 12; free for children 9 and under; $9 for a season pass
INFORMATION: (949) 494-3030 or www.sawdustartfestival.org.