Laguna Beach: An Art Lover’s Paradise
In the early 1900s, painters such as Frank Cuprien and Edgar Payne found themselves drawn to the isolated coastline and scenic beauty of Laguna Beach, California. Together with other plein air artists they established the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918, kicking off the city’s lasting reputation as an artist community. Today, art creators and admirers alike are drawn to Laguna and the city’s art offerings in a variety of forms and mediums.
There are many ways to explore the city’s art scene all year round. For starters, there’s a string of galleries up and down Coast Highway as well as several located on adjacent Forest Avenue, Ocean Avenue, and Glenneyre Street. Browse on your own any day or take them in all at once during First Thursdays Art Walk. The free, year-round event is held on the first Thursday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m. Galleries open their doors and welcome art enthusiasts to celebrate the diversity of artwork on display throughout the city.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a ridge aptly named Cliff Drive, the Laguna Art Museum offers appealing visuals both inside and out. Opened in 1929, the museum was originally based in what is now the Steele Gallery. Visitors can find a collection of California art, as well as special exhibitions, concerts, and artist talks. For those more interested in performance art, The Laguna Playhouse presents comedies, dramas, musicals, and youth productions throughout the year.
In an effort to preserve Laguna’s landscape painting heritage, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association holds several programs and events throughout the year. Its largest event, the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, is held in October and transforms the city into an outdoor studio where the nation’s top plein air painters compete for prizes and participate in public paint outs, educational events, and environmental awareness activities.
Summertime, however, is when Laguna’s art activities really kick into high gear.
The Sawdust Art Festival (open this year daily through August 31) features the fine art and craft of more than 200 Laguna Beach artists. I love wandering among the rows of stands bedecked with jewelry, paintings, glasswork, and photography. It’s a difficult place to leave without making a purchase; I find something—a necklace, an ornament, a framed picture—almost every time I go.
Visitors can also partake in hands-on art and craft projects at three demonstration booths; most classes are complimentary with price of admission, although some might require a materials fee. In addition, Sawdust Studio Art Classes are taught by professional art instructors in the Sawdust studios and are offered throughout the year.
Included within the Sawdust grounds—which, by the way, are actually covered in sawdust—are refreshment stands and stages where musicians entertain with their own artistic talents. In the winter, the Sawdust Art Festival hosts an annual Winter Fantasy, open this year on weekends from November 22 through December 21.
Art-A-Fair (also open daily through August 31) is a juried showcase of artwork from artists based around the world. Jurists select art in all mediums in order to ensure visitors connect with at least one artists’ work, although during my visits to Art-A-Fair I have connected with the creations of many crafters, painters, photographers, and jewelers. Luckily, all artists’ works on display at Art-A-Fair are for purchase, which means the stunning painting that catches your eye can become the centerpiece on your living room wall.
The festival’s garden ambience creates a serene setting for visitors to escape the Southern California heat, and live musicians provide entertainment on the weekends. Art-A-Fair’s restaurant, Tivoli Too!, serves epicurean cuisine (and delicious margaritas) daily amid a soothing waterfall backdrop.
For more than 80 years, the juried fine art show Festival of Arts has welcomed Laguna locals and visitors. Walls encircling a grassy courtyard showcase 140 of Orange County’s finest artists. The festival also features demonstrations, art workshops, daily art tours, live music, special events, and on-site refreshments
After browsing the paintings, photography, printmaking, sculpture, jewelry, furniture, ceramics, and glass on display at Festival of the Arts, many visitors file into the outdoor amphitheater at the back of the festival grounds for the world renowned Pageant of the Masters. This 90-minute stage show—a separate ticket from Festival of Arts—features actors posed and dressed to re-create classical and contemporary works of art. The performance includes a professional orchestra performing a live score and a live narrator who takes viewers on a fascinating art history lesson set to theme.
While every year brings a new topic and carefully curated featured artwork, I must say the theme for this year’s Pageant is a favorite. Dubbed “The Art Detective,” the production highlights some of the fascinating mysteries in art, film, and literature, from Sherlock Holmes and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and the 1990 heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Pageant of the Masters makes use not only of the stage but also of the top and sides of the stage’s façade as well as the hills surrounding the amphitheater. Most of the “living” paintings and statues revealed throughout the performance begin in darkness before sophisticated lighting illuminates the work to create just the right visual. However, at one point the audience is taken behind the scenes via camera, watching as an actor arrives for his call time; is made up, costumed, and wigged; and is brought to the stage to be placed on set. The lights go dark then return once again to show what was a three-dimensional display is now a two-dimensional work of art. It’s a fascinating trick of light and quality production that gets me every time. Be sure to bring binoculars to catch all the details.
Both Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters run this year through August 30.
For $23, visitors can access all three festivals throughout the summer with Passport to the Arts. The Passport includes a one-time parking pass at Act V (located at 1900 Laguna Canyon Road) and various merchant offers. Passports are available for purchase online, at any of the three festival box offices, and at the Official Laguna Beach Visitors Center at 381 Forest Avenue, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Please note tickets to Pageant of the Masters must be purchased separately.
While some artists express themselves with a brush and paint, others choose to use fresh, seasonal ingredients. Tabu Grill was the perfect place to dine before Pageant of the Masters, with its colorful, beautifully plated dishes and vibrant décor. Although its name comes from Polynesian Tongan people and means “set apart” or “forbidden,” Tabu seemed quite the opposite, a place where all were welcome. True, the 10-year-old, Zagat-rated restaurant has a rather pricey menu and often serves upscale clientele from nearby beach resorts, but CEO and managing partner Tom Burns impressed me with the way he enthusiastically greeted each person who came through the door.
At Tabu the ambiance is romantic and relaxed; it’s a place where diners can savor a well-paced meal amid cerulean blue walls, candles set within a stone façade, and bright-colored tapestries hanging from the ceiling. An open kitchen run by executive chef Norberto Villegas serves seasonally inspired dishes and fan favorites.
I had a tough time choosing one large entrée so I decided to go with three smaller plates instead. They arrived at a leisurely pace, first the Tabu poke with ahi tuna, wakame, pickled red onions, sesame, and scallions, then the braised beet salad with rainbow chard, upland crest, citrus segments, and citrus and thyme vinaigrette paired with a pistachio goat cheese baklava. I savored a glass of 2011 Ancient Peaks Zinfandel from Paso Robles with my boneless short rib atop potato puree and stir-fry vegetables, which was drizzled with roasted pineapple barbecue sauce.
Each dish, with its perfectly combined ingredients, was a work of art. And although I was nearly full, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the dessert list. Who could say no to passion fruit cheesecake with coconut mango crème anglaise and kiwi chutney? I certainly couldn’t, and I have no regrets.
Know When You Go
Parking is not always easy in Laguna, especially during the summer. The Act V parking lot has been my go-to during the summer many times since it offers all-day parking and complimentary trolley service to the festivals and Pacific Coast Highway. Laguna’s downtown area also has several parking lots, available for a range of prices and lengths of time.
No matter where you park, Laguna’s free summer trolleys can get you from one side of the city to the other with little hassle. Although the trolleys currently run daily through August 31, beginning March 5, 2015, they will run every weekend.