Laguna Beach: summer means art fests

Check out Pageant of the Masters, Sawdust Festival and Art-a-Fair through the end of August.

Laguna's Sawtooth Art Festival is know for a more informal vibe.
  • Laguna's Sawtooth Art Festival is know for a more informal vibe.

If you want to add some art to your summer, consider heading up to Laguna Beach. A July visit here brought me within walking distance of three major art festivals: the Sawdust Festival, Festival of the Arts and Art-A-Fair.

Situated within a few blocks of each other along Laguna Canyon Road, the festival triad is a must-do for anyone with a creative soul. Along with thousands of works of art, all three feature hands-on workshops in a variety of mediums where a budding artist can hone his or her talents. At the end of a day spent sampling the art and exploring the town, I capped off my visit with the opening night of the 2014 version of the annual Pageant of the Masters, where actors recreate artistic masterpieces.

A bench overlooking the beach is public art in Heisler Park.

A bench overlooking the beach is public art in Heisler Park.

Even without any art festivals, Laguna Beach is worth a summer visit. Its cozy village-by-the-sea atmosphere has attracted artistic types and colorful characters from around the world. One such visitor was Ellar Larsen, a gentle soul from Denmark who greeted visitors with a wave and smile for over thirty years and became known as the local “official greeter.” Larsen’s first job in Laguna Beach was as a participant in the 1938–1940 versions of the Pageant of the Masters. Larsen died in 1975, but he has been immortalized by two statues on S. Coast Blvd.

Sawdust Festival

After visiting all three festivals, I decided that my favorite was the Sawdust Festival. Founded in 1967, the Sawdust Festival retains a bit of the hippie vibe of that era, and has a more informal, local feeling than the others. No committee or board approval is required for an artist to participate. More of the artists were present as well.

Laguna Beach artist Doug Miller.

Laguna Beach artist Doug Miller.

Doug Miller displayed a collection of hundreds of his paintings, most local settings along the Laguna coast. “

How long have you been coming here?” I asked.

“44 years. My first year was 1971.”

Miller estimates that he has completed about 15,000 paintings in the past 20 years. He bemoaned how Laguna had grown more commercial and business-oriented in recent years. Like Doug, most of the artists are returning veterans. (You can contact Doug at [email protected].)

Walking the streets of Laguna

I took a break from all the art and wandered through the streets of Laguna and along the coast, past a bevy of galleries and intriguing shops such as Artiques. The mild summer breeze, brilliant blue water, hidden coves and verdant hills hugging the shoreline make evident Laguna's lure evident to visitors from around the world. As the late afternoon sun drew closer to the horizon, I sat by the beach and watched a fin emerge out of the water, presumably a dolphin.

“At least I hope that’s what it is,” a Canadian visitor who had arrived that day whispered to me.

I climbed the stairs from the beach to the lovingly landscaped Heisler Park (above) that overlooks the community. Bronze sculptures and mosaics along the path are just a few of the 80 or so pieces of public art that are scattered about Laguna. On a stroll around town, you'll encounter innumerable little eccentric touches like brightly painted parking meters and benches supported by sculptures or composed of surfboards. In Laguna Beach, the eccentric and offbeat are accepted, nurtured and encouraged (rather than feared as in many Southern California communities – particularly the wealthier ones). This is key to the town's enduring charm.

Several historic architectural treasures around town, including the Murphy Street Bungalow built in 1920, are maintained with care. The beach-style cottage, decorated with period furnishings, is open to the public Friday-Sunday between 1 and 4 p.m.

As I walked back to the Festival of Arts, I inadvertently passed City Hall and overheard some snippets of a city council meeting that was being held. The discussion involved the unaffordability of rental units for local artists. Somehow that seems like the perfect topic for a Laguna Beach council meeting!

Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair

The Festival of Arts and the Art-A-Fair seemed somewhat interchangeable, but both had an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, mixed media, ceramics, jewelry and textiles. The Festival of Arts has been held since 1932, when it was inaugurated in conjunction with the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. I perused the free workshops and was introduced to the Japanese art of Raku.

The vibe changed as the Pageant performance neared and the crowd grew thicker, buzzing with anticipation like a Hollywood premiere. The lines grew longer – especially for wine. Wine is expensive here, though, so I recommend that you bring your own.

Entrance to the Pageant of the Masters.

Entrance to the Pageant of the Masters.

Pageant of the Masters

The Pageant of the Masters is one of Southern California's premier summer events. The performance presents the reenactment of artistic masterpieces with volunteer actors painted, framed and presented under stage lighting. The result is jarringly similar to what you would see on canvas. About 500 dedicated volunteers make it happen, including hair and makeup artists and wardrobe and set designers, along with the actors. The performance includes a compelling narration and live orchestra.

Each year there's a different theme. This year’s show, “The Art Detective,” involves stories surrounding artworks that have been stolen. Several great arts of work throughout history were displayed using live participants, including an eye-opening demonstration of the process of recreating Washington Crossing the Delaware. By tradition, the pageant closes with a reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a masterpiece that was fortunate to have survived the Allied bombing of Milan during WWII. Having seen the actual Last Supper in Milan last summer, I can attest that this version came pretty darn close to the original.

Arrive by 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show to allow for time to park and check out the festival’s artwork, and be prepared for a memorable experience under a moonlit summer night. The pageant runs through the end of August. Tickets are available at

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Love Laguna Beach...the combination of laid back beach town and arty enclave make for quite the destination.

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