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Up The Road: Laguna Beach Art & Artists

Don Graham
Laguna Beach got its start as a low-key artist enclave and celebrity escape far from the prying eyes of LA.

Still exploring the Orange County coast, the next city south of Newport Beach is Laguna Beach, once a low-key artists’ enclave, known today for high-rent real estate and a highly unusual ode to the arts, the annual Pageant of the Masters. This odd, oddly compelling presentation of tableaux vivants, or living pictures, allows life to imitate art imitating life.

Kind of like Laguna Beach, which goes its own way, period. The high school football team, for example, was known until 2002 as the Laguna Beach Artists—not near enough to strike fear into the hearts of opponents. The Artists are now the Laguna Beach Breakers, which at least honors the subject matter of much local art.

In the 1920s half the population of Laguna Beach were artists, drawn by the area’s undisturbed beauty. Soon one of the West’s most important arts communities, Laguna Beach became a center for California impressionism. Scores of American artists arrived to paint in the open air (en plein air), like the French impressionists and Hudson River School. The legacy of local plein-air artists, including William Wendt, Joseph Kleitsch, William Griffith, and Frank Cuprien, has been lasting. Thus the Laguna Beach Art Museum, which still “collects California art and only California art.” Including an impressive collection of impressionists.

By the 1930s big-screen stars fleeing celebrity, the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Bette Davis, joined a galaxy of lesser-known artists to populate tiny Laguna Beach—close enough to LA for convenience yet far from prying eyes.

Come see how creatively Laguna Beach carries its history forward, starting with the annual Pageant of the Masters and simultaneous Festival of the Arts, both held in July and August. The festival’s arts and crafts are fine, be they handmade musical instruments, sculpture, or scrimshaw—and all local, meaning, made by artists and craftspeople living along the OC coast. There’s even a “junior art” division. And, since the 1960s, an “alternative,” the Sawdust Festival of artists and makers, featuring the work of Laguna Beach residents only.

Tracie Hall
If looking for a place to stay in Orange County, consider the restored “cabins” at nearby Crystal Cove State Park, available for rent.

Don’t miss the pageant. It’s unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else on earth—a living, breathing tribute to the art world’s old masters since the 1930s.

The pageant’s “living pictures” are large-scale sleight of hand or trompe l’oeil, literally, “fooling the eye.” Whether the oversized artwork is da Vinci’s The Last Supper or Monet’s Women in the Garden, on cue costumed participants sneak onto the shadowy stage and freeze into the background frieze. The house goes dark, stage lights flick on—and the audience gasps. There, 50 times larger than life, is an uncanny version of the real thing.

It’s not all high art. The all-volunteer pageanteers may pose as sculptures, California orange-crate labels, hair combs, even postage stamps.

All for a good cause. Pageant proceeds support art scholarships for high school students, and grants for local arts nonprofits.

Tracie Hall
A day at the beach.

Up the Road traveler bonus: Here’s Guillermo from Jimmy Kimmel Live playing his part at a recent Pageant of the Masters.

Until next time, when we visit the swallows of Capistrano, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.