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  • Dion Wright

History of the Sawdust Festival: Recollecting Ed

I think Ed Van Deusen and I were friends when he died. At least we were friendly. He was a genius, I believe, but he wasn't what you might call a real warm guy. To me he always looked like a fella who had carried his babyish appearance into adult life, one of those round-faced, slightly pudgy people. His eyes were blue and sharp behind steel-rimmed round glasses that emphasised an owlish look. He had real curly gray hair that grew longer and longer over the time we worked together.

I met him in Laguna Beach in 1961, when my girlfriend's best friend was Ed's daughter. They were rich people, in my eyes, living in a great big mansion hanging on the cliff above the shore. In '61 I was still polishing and lacquering brass doorknobs for a living, while dreaming of becoming a great artist. That was in one half of a building in Laguna Canyon. The other half of the building was leased by an entrepreneur who was manufacturing and packaging units of epoxy glue (blue resin, yellow catalyst), which was a new product then. The entrepreneur was Ed Van Deusen. I believe that he was a wheel in Techtronics, also. He had clout with the city after having successfully engineered and put through the new Laguna Playhouse. Ed was a background figure in my life then, but later we sort of got into the politics of Art (and show business) together, when the Sawdust Festival was congealing.

In 1968 a nucleus of people decided to establish another art festival in Laguna Beach, to be called the Sawdust Festival in contrast to the Festival of Arts, across the street, which had abandoned sawdust-covered grounds in the early '60's by installing concrete. Putting down a sawdust deck in the new "Sawdust" show was vaguely regarded as a statement of freedom, and a return to some kind of "good old days" that probably weren't. Each of the people had his or her own reasons for joining the move to a new festival, and the reasons were wildly different. Dolores Ferrell, the most pugnacious and combative of the rebels, was furious at The Festival of Arts for jurying out her paintings, and she vowed to confound them with a new UNjuried show.

It was a symptomatic event for the 60's. When the compelling Dolores collared me on Forest Avenue and asked me to bring my "group" into the Sawdust, she was all sweetness and idealism, revealing nothing of her angry bulldog side. Idealism was the key to my heart in those days, and I came in with a bunch of my rather serious friends, whom I instantly coalesced into a "group" which hadn't existed before that moment. We called ourselves the Experimental Artists of Laguna Beach, and issued a ringing manifesto of creative freedom (which still exists). When we Experimental Artists became a part of the new Sawdustly equation, the most conservative element of the Proto-Sawdust phalanx had a conniption fit, bolted from the show on the very verge of its first opening (to escape from us wild "hippies"), and went off to start the Sawdust Splinters, which later became the Art Affair. That show eventually went back to a juried system of entry, and consequently the founders were all forced out. When they did leave the embryonic Sawdust Festival, they took the treasury with them, and we were left to open on the most dessicated shoestring - which sufficed, due to the silver-tongued persuasiveness and incredible creativity of vision which Bob Young brought to the position which might be regarded as the first grounds manager. We opened with some very odd units which were claimed to be "booths": a fire engine, a chuck wagon, a tall tower.

I soon found out that Ed Van Deusen was at the middle of the groundbreaking group, and was living with Dolores Ferrell. Sort of. Also there were Frank Tauriello and Marilyn (Zapp) Tauriello, who were the leaders of a disaffected group of crafts people. Through the first years of the show Ed and Dolores were striving constantly against the Tauriellos for control of the board. It seemed to me that Ed Van Deusen took a fierce pleasure from political infighting. His mouth would set itself into a characteristic smile which was something like what one might expect on the face of a race car driver or a bullfighter, and you could practically hear the gears whirring and the synapses snapping behind those intelligent blue eyes as he calibrated his moves. When he had himself planted intellectually, he would deliver a few perfectly composed paragraphs as if they were the one and only obvious truth, in the reasonable and declarative tones of a self-assured executive. It was clear that he knew that nobody with a brain cell working could possibly take issue with him. But they did, of course. Ed and Marilyn both liked to contemplate themselves as backstage empresarios, hoping to create reliable puppets for the board, whose strings they might pull. A few puppets functioned well enough, but some got balky and unpredictable.

When the puppet approach got tired, Ed decided to unleash a Strong Man, who would hold things together by the force of his personality. Tom Leslie, the Strong Man, probably did carry the show on his back, but Tom Leslie became a dictator. That was by default as much as by his bullying. Exhibitor apathy has always been congenital at the Sawdust Festival, and mostly people were content to let Tom run things as he pleased, so long as the show got open in July. In those days, although Tom was dictatorial as a manager, there was no stifling of expression, as we sometimes suffered later. Ed was always the arbiter and manifestor of free expression, and pushed it to the limits.

Van Deusen knew that free expression is one indispensible ingredient in an art festival. He exercised his creative freedom constantly, and often vulgarly and provocatively. Either he failed to realise that another indispensible ingredient is talent, or he misapprehended his own assigned portion of that mysterious commodity. He developed a series of life-size nude girls in boots, etc, executed in resin, and flaunting bizarre poses, including genital display. They were ghastly to look at, and it's really questionable as to how much "redeeming social value" they may have possessed. The only reason for making them was to assert his right of free expression. They proved once again that intelligence alone is not enough to assure good taste. One thing is sure, if he were challenged, Ed could unleash a flood of words sufficient to overwhelm a trainload of lawyers.

Ed was the philosopher and policy guru of the Sawdust Festival, although he had to fight and maneuver against opposition to steer it. He thought up the strategems for exercising creative expression and maneuvered to get them going. I never got to ask him how he had happened to come out of the world of fast-track business to become such a committed activist in the cause of free expression. I wanted to ask him, but he refused to be interviewed about it. He seemed disgusted and embarrassed by his offspring, the Sawdust Festival. In 1982 he thought that it had lived too long. Ed had never expected the Sawdust Festival to last, and in the end he thought that it shouldn't have lasted and now it's lasted thirty years. He wanted to know what the heck I was doing still hanging around there, and when I told him I was recording, he made a sour face.

Ed's liason with Dolores Ferrell seemed to me to be a consequence of political expediency wedded to opportunity, and it didn't last more than a year or two, as I recall. Some years subsequent, he took up with a bright young exhibitor named Janice Costello, who always struck me forcefully as looking incredibly much like Ed himself. They commenced a codified relationship, i.e. he drew up a formal agreement between them in which their domestic arrangements were committed to paper. The two of them eventually wrote a book about it called Contract Cohabitation, which enjoyed enough celebrity to get them onto the talk-show circuit for awhile, and make them a pot of money. When the contract expired, Janice took her share of the money and bought a small island off of the coast of Honduras, where she may be still, for all I know.

Ed; he got old, and grouchy, and finally wheelchair-bound. He died a few years back, and we had a memorial day for him at the Sawdust Festival. His children came, but few others showed up. Respect for the past, for tradition, and least of all, for individuals (unless they have the whip in their hand) has not been a noteworthy aspect of Sawdust attitude.

© 2015 by Dion Wright

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