Hansen: Blood and sweat mixes with Sawdust

In business they call it a "closing event, the golden opportunity to finalize the deal. For many Laguna artists, Friday's opening of the Sawdust Festival is their nine-week closing event, something they've worked toward all year, sweating blood and now hoping for the best.

But it's not like winding up a clock and counting the money.

It's about knowing your audience, your work, your value. It's about timing, compromise and negotiation.

And in some cases, it's about reinventing yourself.

Eleven years ago, Carrie Zeller was barely selling photos on eBay when she realized she was quickly becoming a commodity.

Now, she is in her fifth year at Sawdust because she is "taking photography to the next level," adding an interesting overlay of fused and slumped glass to the photos, some selling for almost $4,000.

"Everybody who comes by says, 'I've never seen that before,'" Zeller said with a smile. "And that was my goal."

But it doesn't happen overnight.

Most artists at Sawdust agree that success takes time. And it's not just the quality of the work that needs to percolate. It's building the relationships with prospects, getting your work accepted and infused into the culture of buyers.

"It takes five years for people to trust you," said James Koch, whose distinctive rusted ironworks initially were dismissed by skeptical buyers.

"I sell rust for a living, but I support myself with my art now," said Koch, who has had a Sawdust booth for 13 years. "It launched my career."

Koch now uses Sawdust as a real-time market research firm.

"I'll make one thing and test it," he said. "If it sells, I'll make two. If those two sell, I'll make four."

At some point in the math, it becomes obvious that "art" transitions into "product."

"I hate to call it a product," Koch said, letting his words trail off.

Sawdust dean Doug Miller, who has had a booth for an astounding 41 years and is almost up to 13,000 paintings, doesn't mince any words when it comes to making your mark.

"Don't bank on the first year," he said. "You just can't count on that first year, unless you have something that sells to every Girl Scout that walks through the door."

His basic advice? "If you've got a craft, do it well — do it well."

For painter Donita Lloyd, a 20-year festival veteran and a Laguna Beach resident since 1955, Sawdust is a reflection of what makes Laguna special: uniqueness and an ability to survive on a niche.

"I love this show," said Lloyd, who created 125 paintings for this year's show. "It's our chance to have our own gallery in a very expensive town. It's our chance. Because of this show, I have my own little home here."

Not every artist makes it at Sawdust, and not everyone is accepted. First of all, you have to be a Laguna Beach resident. And the recent economic slump has hurt sales.

Artists generally are downsizing, making pieces smaller and lowering the price points.

"The economy has affected the American small business," Lloyd said, "I'm down 25%. I love people from out of state — they buy."

Lloyd said she tries to take the long view, recognizing that economies will rise and fall but some things stay the same.

"It's all about the art," she said. "It's an opportunity for new and old alike to fly their art high and proud. I call this a service industry. You serve the soul."

Indeed, the price of beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. It's defined by the things that some take for granted: twisted rust and melted glass and contrasting shapes and shadows.

The price of beauty is found amid nine weeks of sawdust, sweat and hope that what you do matters to a stranger walking by.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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