Festival of Arts / Pageant of the Masters: 2018 Media Preview Night

Irvine Bowl Park, Laguna Beach, CA

Greetings, folks! We’ve got a special update for you today, a preview of the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters. Believe it or not, when we’re not riding roller coasters, feasting on burritos, catching all the spoopy things, or getting our travel on, we at Westcoaster actually geek out over art, and last Monday, we had a chance to preview an Orange County tradition. For 85 years, Laguna Beach has played host to a beloved summertime art festival that has become an area cultural institution.

The Festival of Arts is a juried showcase of works from a variety local artists, covering multiple types of media. In addition to galleries of paintings, crafts, and printmaking, the Festival holds weekly concerts, art talks, a wine and chocolate tasting series, and art lessons. Meanwhile, the venerated Pageant of the Masters provides an extraordinary sequence of real life recreations of famous works of art. Held at the Irvine Bowl, it is a theatrical show that features live actors and sets painted to mimic renown artworks in history.

The Festival of Arts starts July 5th this year and runs through September 1st, while the Pageant of Masters begins July 7 and has the same end date. This year’s theme for the Pageant is “Under the Sun,” celebrating the light and nature that has inspired so many painters around and featuring works by many Laguna-based masters who painted in the area in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s a little bit of what you can expect from this fantastic cultural tradition!

Meet the Artists

This year’s festival will feature the artwork of over 140 artists, and on Monday we were invited to see the work of and interview four of them. Representing a variety of different formats—from oil painting to ceramics to jewelry to abstract prints, the artists showcased some of their works and chatted with anyone curious about their inspiration, technique, and production. It was actually pretty interesting learning about what motivated their artwork and hearing about their creative process.

Sharon Jackman

The organic forms of Sharon’s pottery seemed to draw a lot of inspiration from nature and the coastal aesthetic of local Laguna Beach. With swirling shapes and hues ranging from seafoam green to cerulean blue, her ceramic creations were a motion of artistic energy. She proved to be a popular attraction, as multiple other people routinely asked her about her process while she demonstrated some of the sanding and finishing techniques on an unglazed piece.

Michael Obermeyer

We didn’t have a chance to talk to Michael either, mostly because he was in the middle of a live demonstration, painting an oil portrait of a sitting model. Michael’s paintings on display ranged across range of subjects, from nude models to oceanside landscape. The latter featured many of Laguna’s famous and gorgeous beaches.

Lance Heck

Lance presented an exhibit of sleek and modern jewelry that he hand made individually, crafted out of silver and gold and a variety of gemstones. He cited his inspirations as a mix of nature and built architecture, the latter showing clear influence on his modern jewelry.

Yoonsook Bai Ryang

Our most interesting conversation came with Yoonsook, whose abstract prints showed a moody sense of secluded grandeur. Originally trained classically, she noted her shift to abstract as a way to express more emotion. What really interested us, however, was the inspiration for the two pieces she had on display: Iceland, which she had just visited in May of last year. One of the prints reflected the black sand beaches of Jokulsarlon, which I had visited during my own vacation last year, while the other depicted one of Iceland’s many glaciers. They might just look like lines and patterns at first, but once we understood the inspiration, we could see the forms depicted.

The rest of the gallery was still well under construction, but once it’s completed in July, there will be over a hundred more artists just like the four we met, each with his or her own works to take in!

Pageant Presentation

After about an hour to conduct interviews, take photos, and take in the setting, it was time for the media tour to get underway. Festival of Arts President David Perry gave a few words about both the history of and upcoming plans for the Festival of Arts before relaying the humble origins of the Pageant of the Masters. It was 1933 when the first Pageant was held, and back then, it was nothing like what it is today. In fact, its original purpose was as a publicity stunt. Artists and their family and friends dressed up as several works of art, like the Mona Lisa, Atlas, and Whistler’s Mother, then paraded through Downtown Laguna Beach before arriving at the site of the Festival of Arts. There, they posed in small booths set up to compose the full portraits of their inspirations. These were the first tableaux vivants--”living pictures.” The makeup was simple, and so were the sets. But that was the first seedling of what would become one of the most famous artistic presentations around today.

Two years later, in 1935, local businessman Roy Ropp took over the presentation of the Pageant, and he jazzed it up with a more theatrical vibe. Adding music, narration, and more extensive painted backdrops, Ropp turned the Pageant more recognizingly like the spectacle it has become today.

As a tribute to one of the first living pictures presented at the Pageant, a presentation of Raising the Flag Over Irvine Bowl—a nod to the famous Iwo Jima photo—was enacted. It wasn’t a full tableau, since the display was mostly the actors and the flag in the iconic pose. But we would see more immersive exhibits later.

Pageant Scenic Artists

Our next stop was backstage to see the Pageant backdrops in painting progress. The Pageant presents nearly 40 living paintings in a showing, all of which require their own sets and backgrounds. Volunteer artists spend months working on the sets, recreating famous paintings in various styles. It’s a lengthy and exhausting process, all made more impressive by the fact that the painters are devoting their own time to the endeavor.

But the murals are not the only pieces being worked on. Props and head pieces are also painted to match the aesthetic of each painting, and process that produces hundreds of man hours. We got to see just a sample of the many parts and pieces required to put the Pageant of the Masters together, and it was most certainly impressive.

Backstage Tour

Afterward, we headed backstage, to the dressing room area, where cast members who would be a part of the evening’s Pageant preview were getting ready. Upon entering, we were presented with a line of the paintings going up in this year’s series of living pictures. Wardrobe was on hand to supply the clothes specially altered to match the paintings, while make-up was applying its own finishing touches for each character. Some of the already finished actors were outside to take pictures. It was a whirlwind watching how much has to come together in an efficient and synchronized manner to make the Pageant come to life.

Pageant Preview

Finally, it was time see the finished product. There would be three paintings transformed into theater tonight: Franz A. Bischoff’s Catching Fish at the Beach, Joseph Kleitsch’s Red and Green, and three lithographs from the Orange Crate Labels that were popular early on during the “orange rush” that sprouted when Southern California was growing its orange industry.

The first scene doubled as a run-through of the “builder” feature first started in 1966. This was was an instant hit when it debuted, because it showed the audience how each tableau is put together. A backdrop is wheeled into place into the frame, before the foreground element slides in—sometimes with actors already propped on it, and sometimes with actors coming on to complete the scene. Assistants and crew help ready the staging, checking final touch-up’s and comparing the set-up with the original painting before theatrical lighting is turned on to properly illuminate and complete the effect.

And when everything is done, the results are stunning. Framed within the proscenium, with actors posed perfectly still, paint applied in combination to achieve the correct texture and sheen, it is as though we are looking at a giant version of the portraits in real life. It’s impressive to imagine how all of these are set up and presented in rapid succession, seamlessly moving from painting to painting, with set-up and wardrobe changes and all the logistics coordinated to produce a smooth show.

Terra Restaurant

After the presentation, we were treated to dinner the new Terra Restaurant, at the Festival of Arts grounds. Formerly Tivoli Terrace, this has been taken over by the Laguna Beach Company and being transformed into a new gourmet destination. The iconic 1957 hyperbolic shell structure designed by architect Don Williamson that dramatically cantilevers over the dining promenade remains, but Terra will feature modern California cuisine under a menu by executive chef Jenny Messing. We sampled some of the new dishes that will be on the menu—a tasty flank steak, a light and flavorful salmon fillet, and a new olive oil cake with crème fraiche and berries. All were delicious.

This year’s Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters begins next month. Though they are at the same venue, they are separately ticketed events, with Festival tickets starting at $10/person, while the Pageant has varied pricing based on seating ranging from $15 to $260 a seat. This is fine art, to be sure, but it’s a wonderful experience and cherished tradition. Any art fan should definitely come down to south Orange County to see this during the summer. And for Halloween fans, this fall on the last weekend of October and on Halloween night, the venue will also feature the Pageant of the Monsters, a spooky twist on the artistic show that turns the backstage area into a haunted house with an artistic twist.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this variation from most of our normal updates. It may not have the same thrills as theme parks or haunted houses (though part of it kind of will), but the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters still offers a great time for family and culture lovers to partake. And it’s an incredible labor of love from the hundreds of volunteers who do this simply for their passion for the arts, not for any monetary gain. See the Festival web site for more information, check it out in person this summer!

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.