Our Laguna: Artists are the heart of festival season

Dan Skaggs has been creating water sculptures for 20 years, most recently the one in front of the Laguna Beach County Water District that commemorates the service of the late Susan Trager.

"The sculpture was a tribute to her personality and taste," Skaggs said.

Trager, who died March 22, was the first woman to serve on the district board of directors since it was founded in 1925. She was appointed when the district was rethinking its decision to relinquish its independence from the city rather than be forced by the Local Agency Formation Committee into a mésalliance with South Coast Water District, and served with distinction and élan until her death.

"The district wanted the sculpture to be simple and zen," Skaggs said.

A resident of Laguna since 1998, Skaggs is among the 140 artists whose work is being exhibited at the Festival of Arts.

He has been an exhibitor for 22 years, but by no means does he hold the record. That honor goes to watercolorist Jacquie Moffat.

Moffat has been an exhibitor for 44 years and served on the board for 16 years, with the late David Young, Jack Kemp and Anne Chase, among others.

Phil Freeman was also on the board and if he were still exhibiting, he would be the dean, Moffat said.

Moffat is proud of her involvement with the realignment of the booths as a member of the board's Exhibition Committee.

"They used to be lined up, and it was like going to a supermarket," Moffat said. "We broke it up into pods, and it is much more interesting."

As a member of the board, Moffat worked to make the jurying — the process by which exhibitors are accepted — transparent, battling against the accusations of a closed corporation.

"I think we accomplished a lot, although we still get hammered," she said. "But outside jurors are impressed with the process."

Each year a crop of newcomers are accepted into the show. This year William R. Brion, M Collier, Bill Drysdale, Baldemar Fierro, Hannah Harris, Ryan Heimback, Susan Jarecky, Molly Lipsher, Barry Robin, Brittany Ryan, Gretchen Schields, Mark Walpin, Susan Wills and Philip Womack got the nod.

Brion, Collier, and Jarecky work in oils, Drysdale in watercolor, Schields and Walpin in mixed media, Lipsher in pastels, Womack in acrylics. Laguna Beach residents Heimback and Ryan are sculptors. Robin is one of only two exhibitors listed in the wood category, although furniture maker Randy Bader has been a fixture in the festival for years. Wills is a ceramist. Fierro works with a camera to create his art.

"It is a blessing to get into the show this year," said Womack, a 2006 Laguna College of Art & Design graduate. "There have been so many positive changes. Newcomers used to get an 8-foot (display) wall, but this year everyone is getting a 16-foot wall.

"Mr. Martin Betz is the director, and he curates the show like a gallery show. And it is cool to end up where the college got its start."

The college began with funding from Young and other festival supporters. Classes were held on the festival grounds.

Walpin is not exactly a newcomer.

"I was in the show for three years in the early '90s," said Walpin, a local. " Then I began to show only in galleries."

But mixed-media exhibitor and friend Pat Sparkuhl encouraged him to come back into the show.

"It's a good way to support local art," Walpin said.

If Walpin's name rings a bell with some, the names of other artists in the show resound.

Among the long-time exhibitors: jeweler Dan Miller, mixed-media artists Mia Moore and Mada Leach, oil painters Scott Moore, Ken Auster, John Eagle, Jacobus, Elizabeth McGhee and Tom Swimm, and sculptor Jon Seeman, whose "Breaching Whale," installed in Heisler Park, will be dedicated Thursday.

Other familiar names in the show: Ralph Tarzian, Anne England, Mike Tauber and Terry Thornsley.

Familiar names whose works will not be exhibited this year: Monica Dunham, Julita Jones, festival vice president Tom Lamb and John Warren, all on sabbatical.

For a complete list of the artists, an example of their work and their comments on their work, visit http://www.foapom.com and click on exhibitors.

The Festival of Arts' mission is to promote, produce and sponsor events and activities that enhance the appreciation, study and performance of the arts.

It operates under the direction of an elected board. This year: Fred Sattler, president; Tom Lamb, vice president; Pat Kollenda, secretary; Anita Mangels, treasurer; Wayne Baglin, David Perry, Steven Dicterow, Bob Moffat and Ann Webster. The sitting mayor automatically becomes an ex-officio member upon election — at present, Toni Iseman.

It began in the Great Depression as a promotion to draw tourists to Laguna .

According to a festival history written by former resident Belinda Blacketer, the first festival was held in 1932. Artists set up booths to show off their work and hopefully to sell it.

A Living Picture Show, with locals dressed in costumes and posed in back of makeshift frames was part of the festival, destined to become the Pageant of the Masters.

Between 1933 and 1940, the show bounced around town, set up a couple of times where City Hall now stands.

But that ended on July 30, 1941, when the festival and the pageant opened the Irvine Bowl Park. It was the last show for several years, closed down by World War II.

From its reopening to today, the show has become the iconic cultural symbol of Laguna. Signs at the city limits proclaim it "Home of the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters," so named by Roy Ropp, a local construction worker generally considered to be the father of the pageant.

The festival is so firmly entrenched in the community psyche that an attempt by the board of directors in 2000 to relocate it to San Clemente resulted in a revolt by the members and artists. The board was run out of town.

The festival and pageant are also the cash cow that helped fund the purchase of Main Beach and millions of dollars in scholarships — exhibitor Hedy Buzan and pageant director Dee Dee Challis Davy among the recipients.

Sixteen scholarships were awarded at the Laguna Beach High School Honors Convocation in June.

There is a reason summer in Laguna is called the Festival Season.

Admission to the show is free to Laguna Beach residents with proof of residency. It will be open from 10 a..m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday and from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. starting Tuesday.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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