Laguna Beach, California’s Festival of Arts and the Pageant of the Masters: A history of revivals

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Here’s the big picture in Laguna Beach, California: for the longest time, the history of its art has more or less been as novelist Samuel Butler surmised—a “history of revivals.” And even as one discounts any suspicion of wordplay, such a statement can still yield truth as far as this city is concerned.

Entrenched within lush, undulating topography, and bordered with coastlines sculpted by no less than the Pacific Ocean, this beachside community of Orange County has long been a popular destination along the West Coast. But as affluent as it is today, Laguna Beach has had its fair share of trials.

Following its stint as a collection of small farmsteads established after the Civil War, the city, like the rest of the United States, struggled economically due to the Great Depression. Seeing that morale had gone low within the community, a group of local artists came together hoping to find ways to raise spirits while selling paintings along the side. The group, through the spearheading of local artist, John Hinchman, elaborated on the idea of an “intellectual carnival.” Hinchman then presented a plan for a weeklong event that would turn part of the city into a massive outdoor gallery. That plan was christened, “the Festival of Arts.”

Years have passed since the Laguna Beach Art Association and City Council supported the idea. Years have passed since about two dozen artists hung their paintings along the city’s main street to attract attention for their event. But its organizers still remember August 13, 1932—the date when Laguna Beach launched its very first Festival of Arts, and sold its very first painting, “Flower Market” by Virginia Wooley. Since then, locals have seen a slow but steady revival of the city as an artist community and the festival has been one of the most popular and well-attended cultural events of Laguna Beach.

“The Festival of Arts offers an opportunity for local area artists to share their work with an international audience,” said Californian sculptor, Troy Poeschl who has been exhibiting in the event for the last 10 years. He added that with a history that spans decades, the festival has been one of the anchor points in enhancing the identity of Laguna Beach.

Dedicated to showcasing the most talented artists in its vicinity, the festival has come to be known for two primary events that occur annually between July and August. Among the two is “The Festival of Arts –California’s Premier Fine Art Show,” a rigorously juried showcase that featured 140 of Orange County’s finest artists this year. With a collection of works from different media, it is considered as one of the most extensive exhibitions in the state.

“The Festival of Arts is truly fortunate to count among its exhibitors some of the most talented artists in the country,” said Frederic Sattler, the president of the Festival of Arts. “It’s not only our mission but our privilege to provide them with a forum in which to share their creativity with hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer. And since their works are available for purchase, patrons have the opportunity to bring home amazing, original pieces to be enjoyed for a lifetime.”

It was this art show that initially revitalized the community after its first outing. But as far as Laguna Beach is concerned, Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, had it right: “At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art.” And in its attempt to accomplish the latter, the community whose history of art is a history of revivals, annually breathes new life to some of the most iconic images known throughout the world. This is done through an event dubbed “Pageant of the Masters.”

Known formally as “Pageant of the Masters –Where Art Comes to Life,” the show is an elaborate stage production wherein a chosen cast poses and recreates classical and contemporary works of art.

The very first pageant occurred in 1933 when a group of artists staged a publicity stunt by parading local volunteers dolled up to imitate characters in famous works of art including the “Mona Lisa” and “Whistler’s Mother.” Since then, the show has evolved into an intricate spectacle involving music, informative narration and painted backdrops. It has also become one of the most popular events linked to the Festival of Arts as shown last year when it drew an audience of around 150,000 people.

Staged at the Irvine Bowl this year, the pageant got upsized with its 80th anniversary showcase entitled “The Big Picture.” Meant as a tribute to “the history of motion pictures and the ways in which masterpieces of art have inspired and informed the movies,” the pageant this year featured works by Michaelangelo, Johaness Vermeer, Norman Rockwell and Thomas Gainsborough to name a few. Its press release states that the show also sought to explore ideas like “how the genius of Michelangelo found expression in ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy,’ how Gainsborough’s portraits influenced Stanley Kubrick, and how the works of Jean-Leon Gerome provided inspiration for films by directors like David Lean and Ridley Scott.”

“Designers for both stage and screen look to paintings and sculpture for historical information and inspiration,” said Challis Davy, the director of the pageant. “I thought it would be a new twist for the Pageant to take a look back at the work of the masters that inspired great works of cinema.”

Aside from this, the pageant did its best to live up to its theme. This year, around 1,200 volunteers tried out to be part of the show, around 500 were chosen to either be part of the cast or work behind the scenes, and materials used for the production came in gallons and pounds. As a result, the works of the masters indeed came to life with a showcase well-received by the audience. Davy stated that such a thing would not have been possible if not for the contributions of the community.

“I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who love the hard work it takes to produce a very elaborate show,” Davy said. “I get inspiration from the scriptwriter, staff, composers, and from the scores of enthusiastic research volunteers who come up with great suggestions.”

Inspiration, however, does not seem scarce in Laguna Beach. With its rolling landscapes, inviting weather and strikingly-etched coves, the place is a vibrant natural beauty that has long drawn people from different parts of the world. In Doreen Mangan’s “Art Community: Haven and Inspiration,” artist Marco Sassone states that the area itself is “a paradise, an inexhaustible source of inspiration.” It is because of this that numerous artists and institutions have come to call it home.

But as artist Marc Chagall once said, “great art picks up where nature ends.” In Laguna Beach, “great art” has been “picking up” for over 80 years. And that’s the bigger picture.

Artists featured in this year’s Festival of Arts

Betty Haight and Stephanie Cunningham

As the old adage goes, “two heads are better than one” and in the arts scene of Laguna Beach, the duet of Betty Haight and Stephanie Cunningham continues to attest to this.

In their process, the two artists use similar methods, canvas sizes and palettes separately before getting together to lay out their work—effectively bringing in two points of views to create a rich, and united picture. The pieces created through their union are then finished with frames often made of wood gathered by Haight usually from old Laguna cottages being torn down, and a story written by Cunningham which is attached to the back of the painting. It is a lengthy process but one that the two artists eagerly explain whenever they get to showcase their work at the Festival of Arts.

The most memorable experiences for us involved getting to meet and talk with the people who like our work,” Haight told asianTraveler. “It is fun to show people our process and explain our unique partnership in art.”

Casey Parlette

Reared by a youth of hills, water and local wild life, sculptor, Casey Parlette, seems to be a natural. The Festival of Arts website states that he never had any formal training, but that didn’t stop this Southern Californian from getting into the craft even at an early age. Years since his formative childhood, the UCLA anthropology graduate continues to make a name for himself in the Laguna Beach art scene with an arresting style that, lets nature take its course—most of the time.

“My approach to my craft is with a respect for natural materials in their natural state,” he stated. “Woods, metals and stones are chosen for their natural patterning, texture and color to express the subject accurately and artistically, without imposing artificial elements to achieve the desired effect.”

Troy Poeschl

Sculptor, Troy Poeschl has exhibited in the Festival of the Arts for 10 years but to him, the excitement brought on by the event has yet to die down. Still exploring new works and experimenting, this California State University graduate continues to look for narratives within his materials to fashion sculptural installations that convey movement, rhythm and shadow which he dubbed integral to his work. He also continues to look forward to being part of the festival yet again in years to come.

“It is an honor to have my work featured as part of a festival that exhibits the creations of so many talented artists,” he told asianTraveler. “I enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow exhibitors and the community atmosphere.”

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