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Anything goes at Sawdust

Anything goes at Sawdust
Fine artist Deborah Paswaters paints on the body of Ruth Dormeier during a live art presentation in her booth during 2013 Sawdust Art Festival Preview Night on Tuesday. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot)

Nikki Grant never imagined being able to make a living as an artist.

That changed in 1966, though, when the jewelry designer joined a cluster of Laguna Beach artists who either didn't make it into the Festival of Arts or objected to its jury system.

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All free spirits, they didn't take kindly to rules or politics, she said. And the Sawdust Art Festival was born.

"Initially, it was an experiment, but it just kept going and going and going," said Grant, who hasn't missed a single show in the festival's 47-year history. Her affordably priced concoctions comprise colorful beads and twisted and hammered wire, and reflect a keen eye for detail.

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As a nonprofit, Sawdust has to follow a set of guidelines — for instance, the height of its artists' booths — but has retained an attribute that generates pride among its pioneers.

"There's no jury system — no one can tell you if your stuff is good enough," said Grant, 67. "Anyone who wants to be in the festival and lives in Laguna Beach can do it."

According to Marketing and PR Director Cynthia Fung, more than 200 local artists — photographers, painters, sculptors, jewelers and more — highlight the diversity that is synonymous with Sawdust.

"All of the artwork on the grounds is unique and handmade by Laguna Beach artists," she said. "Since we are a non-juried show, you never know what you will find on the grounds."

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'The basic foundation of Laguna'

Larry Gill, who was first exposed to the dynamics of Sawdust as a booth builder, voiced his agreement, praising the festival's exclusivity.

"Sawdust represents a demographic that is the basic foundation of Laguna," he said.

The 67-year-old sculptor, who began showing at Sawdust in the early 70s but then took a break till 1995, believes that this is the only festival that reflects an accurate cross-section of Laguna Beach.

In its early years, he recalls a "counterculture" being prevalent at Sawdust, making him wonder if the city would allow the festival to reopen each year.

In the years since, it has become a Laguna Beach institution, he said.

Fung also said an "enchanting outdoor eucalyptus setting" in Laguna Canyon provides the ideal backdrop for live entertainment, artist demonstrations and workshops. Refreshments are offered at the Sawdust Saloon, while Subaru serves as the festival's new title sponsor.

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Friday will also mark the debut of 18 artists and a handful of entertainers, she said of the show that lasts through Sept. 1 with a mission "to educate the public and promote the art created in Laguna Beach."

"Being surrounded by so many artists not only provides encouragement and support, but also provides each artist with new inspirations and great long-lasting friendships," Fung said.

For Grant, Sawdust's first season was a "humongously popular" party that lasted all day and night. What made the experience much sweeter was her $2,000 earnings, which sustained her for a year.

Now, Sawdust has evolved into a Grant family affair.

Nikki's husband Jay is on the festival's board of directors, while her son Micah is her business partner and daughter-in-law Elisabeth her helper. Marjorie and Billy Horner — Elisabeth's parents — are regulars at Winter Fantasy. The list continues with Mark Blumenfeld, Nikki's brother, whom she estimates was absent only once in 1973, while he and his wife were traveling around the world.

Participating in Sawdust is an 11-month undertaking for the artist, who has worked 18-hour days as the festival neared and then taken a month-long vacation after it concluded. Last year, Big Sur was the family's destination of choice, while this September, they plan to drive from Florida to Pennsylvania.

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A short Segway ride

Grant, whose father worked with jewelry-making supplies and brought home an assortment of metal and tools, began constructing pieces in high school, which she wore herself or gifted to her friends. In between, she switched to ceramics like her brother, but her hands, tiring of cold clay, inspired her return to fashion jewelry.

No matter the medium, Sawdust has been a custom.

"It's got a wonderful ambience and I enjoy the music, the joy, the creativity and the customers," she said. "There's a sense of family, celebration and friendship."

Fung credits the festival's veteran artists for enhancing the Sawdust culture with a "sense of traditionalism and consistency."

Gill, who shares a booth with jeweler Ruth Wright and her husband, sculptor Dion Wright — both original members of Sawdust — relishes the feeling of community.

The trio are good friends — with Ruth supervising the two men, Gill admitted with a laugh — and showcase their work in a joined, open space instead of "closed-in cubicles."

Grant, who clambers onto a Segway to traverse the short distance between her home and the festival grounds, reflected, "I cannot believe how fortunate I have been in my life."

If You Go

What: Sawdust Art Festival's 47th Annual Summer Show

Where: 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sept. 1; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 4

Cost: $7.75 general admission; $6.25 for seniors; $3.25 for children between 6 and 12; $15 for Summer Festival Pass; $20 for Summer and Winter Show Pass

Information: http://www.sawdustartfestival.org or (949) 494-3030

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