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Sawdust Festival lets the wood chips fall where they may

For those who consider themselves experts on the Sawdust Art Festival, here's a tough one: How many pounds of sawdust do the organizers spread around the grounds every summer?

If you answered "none," give yourself a reward.

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Walking around the 3-acre site on Laguna Canyon Road, it's impossible to miss the shaved wood on the ground or the accompanying smell in the air. The Sawdust festival got its name — and its decor — when it moved to its current home in 1968, and according to the event's website, the roughage is spread on the ground to fight dust and mud.

But in reality, the festival hasn't actually used sawdust for the past decade or so — for the simple purpose of avoiding allergic reactions and dust in visitors' eyes.

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Instead, the festival uses chipped wood courtesy of Apollo Wood Recovery, a Fontana-based recycling company. Monday afternoon, as Sawdust prepared for its June 27 opening, piles of chips occupied several parking spaces by the front entrance, waiting for a grounds crew and artists to dump them inside.

"It definitely does not just magically appear," marketing and public relations director Cynthia Fung said. "Our grounds crew, their tactic is to not look at the heaps and just keep doing the barrels. Keep pushing. There's 3 acres to fill."

Whether the material technically counts as sawdust or not, Victoria Maddock, one of the artists setting up booths Monday, was looking forward to having the grounds blanketed.

"I love the smell of sawdust," said Maddock, a glass artist who has exhibited at the festival for three years. "Even at the end of the summer, when I'm burned out and so ready for it to be over, 'cause I work every single day, I love the smell of sawdust. This place is my heart."

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As the sawdust, or whatever it was, awaited dumping, the sound of cutting wood — via buzzsaw — permeated the grounds. Artists had until Friday to set up their booths, with a Fire Department inspection to come before the media preview night Tuesday.

By Monday, the grounds showed only a smattering of color, with many booths still unpainted and revealing raw wood frames. For Kirk Milette, who prepared for his 33rd year at Sawdust, those planks brought back a few memories.

The jewelry artist still uses some of the pieces that went into constructing his first booth in 1982 — and as he scanned the interior of his booth, he could point out the vintage ones. Between summer festivals, he keeps the supply stacked in his side yard at home.

With Sawdust spots determined by a lottery — artists choose booths in the order their numbers are drawn — Milette has gotten used to adjusting to new locations. This time, he scored a place not far from the front entrance on Laguna Canyon Road.

He noted, though, that artistic merit inevitably trumps location.

"Good or bad, there's always a lot of people coming through looking for handcrafted goods," Milette said. "Sometimes it's just what I have out. I don't think location has as much to do with how your sales are going. It's more who walks up and what you have out."

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