Hansen: Blood and sweat mixes with Sawdust

June 23, 2011|By David Hansen

In business they call it a "closing event, the golden opportunity to finalize the deal. For many Laguna artists, Friday's opening of the Sawdust Festival is their nine-week closing event, something they've worked toward all year, sweating blood and now hoping for the best.

But it's not like winding up a clock and counting the money.

It's about knowing your audience, your work, your value. It's about timing, compromise and negotiation.

And in some cases, it's about reinventing yourself.

Eleven years ago, Carrie Zeller was barely selling photos on eBay when she realized she was quickly becoming a commodity.

Now, she is in her fifth year at Sawdust because she is "taking photography to the next level," adding an interesting overlay of fused and slumped glass to the photos, some selling for almost $4,000.


"Everybody who comes by says, 'I've never seen that before,'" Zeller said with a smile. "And that was my goal."

But it doesn't happen overnight.

Most artists at Sawdust agree that success takes time. And it's not just the quality of the work that needs to percolate. It's building the relationships with prospects, getting your work accepted and infused into the culture of buyers.

"It takes five years for people to trust you," said James Koch, whose distinctive rusted ironworks initially were dismissed by skeptical buyers.

"I sell rust for a living, but I support myself with my art now," said Koch, who has had a Sawdust booth for 13 years. "It launched my career."

Koch now uses Sawdust as a real-time market research firm.

"I'll make one thing and test it," he said. "If it sells, I'll make two. If those two sell, I'll make four."

At some point in the math, it becomes obvious that "art" transitions into "product."

"I hate to call it a product," Koch said, letting his words trail off.

Sawdust dean Doug Miller, who has had a booth for an astounding 41 years and is almost up to 13,000 paintings, doesn't mince any words when it comes to making your mark.

"Don't bank on the first year," he said. "You just can't count on that first year, unless you have something that sells to every Girl Scout that walks through the door."

His basic advice? "If you've got a craft, do it well — do it well."

For painter Donita Lloyd, a 20-year festival veteran and a Laguna Beach resident since 1955, Sawdust is a reflection of what makes Laguna special: uniqueness and an ability to survive on a niche.

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