By: Scott Smith and Sandra Wells

Laguna Beach was founded as an art colony and its world-famous art festivals have just been revived after being paused during the pandemic (the summer versions closing in early September and every art lover should sign up immediately). The area also features a lot of public art, from huge murals to dynamic statues:

Laguna Beach has always been LGBTQ-friendly, of course, and the VisitLagunaBeach office even suggests an itinerary to highlight this history and culture:

Despite the economic impact of the past year, over 100 art galleries are still open and our own latest discovery in July was the visionary painter and sculptor Vladimir Kush of Kush Fine Art His visionary style he terms “metaphorical realism,” which stimulates the imagination with insights. We were especially impressed with his armored knights from another realm, a psychedelic peacock, trumpet-headed elephants, and an otherworldly eclipse of the sun (depicted here).

The Laguna Art Museum


currently has an exhibit of humorous sketches and paintings of clowns by Wayne Thiebaud, Jacques Garnier’s striking black-and-white photos of architectural features, and Matthew Rolston’s photos that show how participants in the Pageant of the Masters are transformed into the characters in famous paintings (more about that below). In the permanent collection, our favorite was The Watcher by Maxine Stussy (see photo).

The three major art festivals are all along Laguna Canyon Road and to get the full experience, find a place to park all day and take the trolley that stops frequently throughout the city. All the venues have live entertainment and food and beverages are available.

We started with the largest, the Sawdust Festival, which hosted 170 local artists across the spectrum of creativity (20 new to the show, so veteran visitors will find not only fresh works by the regulars, but new talent). The safari photography of Paul Renner was riveting, Bruce Freund’s live glassblowing was as creative was it was dangerous, Patsee Ober’s sea life photos were vivid, and R.H. Jones’ Japanese vases were strikingly unusual. Our fave: Tara Luther’s fantastical paintings (see example).

The Laguna Art Affair next door to the Sawdust was new for us, even though it has been around for 55 years. It is juried and featured 129, a mixture of locals and outsiders. There was enormous variety, including Tony Meehleis’ holographic photos on aluminum, Marie Lavallee’s distinctive birds using mixed media (including coins), Jill Crowley’s gorgeous creatures on candlewood in oil, and Michael Cahill’s dramatic photos of scenes from around the world. See our photo of George McGhee’s dark acrylic painting of white birds against misty mountains.

The Festival of Arts Fine Art Show (on the grounds outside the Pageant of the Masters) is the hardest to qualify for and the 100 accepted from around the world were especially impressive. We particularly liked the imaginative husband-and-wife Brian Giberson and Sheri Cohen: his mixed media totems were designed to inspire a spiritual experience, while her jewelry was complex, original, and beautiful. Sean Hunter’s used a camera half-submerged in the sea to shoot unique images. Mariana Nelson created colorful coral-like sculptures out of plastic dry cleaner bags. Carol Heiman-Greene’s painted vivid pictures of wildlife in oil. We loved Wizarts’ gorgeous jewelry of polymer clay, abalone, brass, and other materials. Our choice of picture to represent this show is Greg Boratyn’s shot of an old bristlecone pine, stark against a dramatic sky (we had a hard time choosing among those on display).

Pageant of the Masters has been a unique artistic institution since the first one in 1933 (except for the interruptions of World War II and the pandemic). It takes 60,000 volunteer hours to create a 90 min. production in which actors are made up and dressed to appear exactly like the individuals in famous paintings or statues. Then the magic begins, as they learn to hold often uncomfortable poses, the background of the original painting is brought up to blend in with the actors and foreground (or in the case of statues, the other elements are developed), and stage lighting is adjusted. Even when the audience is shown an example of these “living pictures” (as is done at every performance), the illusion that what one is seeing is the actual art is astonishing (the photo of what we saw on stage, the recreation of Karl Bodmer’s “Bison Dance of the Mandan Indians,” is shown here, courtesy of the Pageant).

This year was somewhat unusual in its theme of the unique contribution of America, not simply artistically, but in providing the conditions for creativity. It started with a moving rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” as the flag waved in the summer breeze, which received such thunderous applause we felt it was a celebration of the liberation from the worst of the pandemic. Then the program proceeded with scenes from the American Revolution, including George Washington on his white horse after crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 and the victory of the colonials against the Hessian allies of the British at Princeton nine days later, a turning point for morale.

From the Lewis and Clark expedition 1803-06 and Frederic Remington’s statue of horsemen charging through a field to Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” the history of American culture is depicted, along with profiles of the artists. Figures who are not widely known, such as the great impressionist Mary Cassatt, received their due.

Perhaps the most powerful tableaus were of the Lincoln Monument and the Statue of Liberty, reminders that for all our faults as a nation, we are committed to striving for the ideals of freedom and equality.