Artist Interviews 2024

David Nelson  
By Laura Siebold

David Nelson may very well be considered a living legend in Laguna Beach. The artist first sold art at Sawdust Art Festival in 1969, an important year in the history of art and music in California. The silversmith artist has had a booth at the festival which now hosts both a summer and a winter edition (Winter Fantasy) for 55 years. Besides being an exhibitor, David contributes much of his time to the organization through volunteering, his participation in the Artists’ Benevolence Fund and the collection of donations for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Read on to learn more about David and his inspiring life story in his interview. David Nelson is based in Laguna Beach, CA.

David, thank you so much for agreeing to do the interview with Art Squat Magazine. We discovered your art at Sawdust Winter Fantasy in Laguna Beach. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with the art festival? How long have you been exhibiting at Sawdust and what makes you come back?

At the age of 15 in 1968, I came here from Texas to visit my brother who brought me to the Sawdust Art Festival. I was like a kid in a candy store, and I knew I wanted to come back. My first year as an artist in the Sawdust was 1969. I started by selling wire and beaded jewelry, pencil drawings and watercolors.

After graduating from high school in 1970, I got a ride to Laguna and got dropped off at the Sawdust Art Festival and got my start as a booth sitter for Tracey Moscaritolo. This will be my 55th consecutive year as an artist/exhibitor. Always wanting to be an artist, the Sawdust Art Festival has allowed me to make a living and work with artists, which has always been my lifelong dream.

I’ve been on numerous committees and have contributed thousands of volunteer hours to the Sawdust Art Festival. I’m a founding member of Winter Fantasy. I have also taught workshops and classes, and have been highlighted in print, radio, TV, and have been a docent on many tours.

Have you always wanted to be an artist? Please give us some insights into your artistic background.

As a young child, I always liked to draw and paint. In 4th grade, along with a handful of other talented kids, I was invited for a chance at an art scholarship. From then on, I nurtured my gift as an artist by taking advantage of creative opportunities, such as poster contests and freelance illustrations for school and friends.

Each artist at Sawdust needs to build his/her/their own booth for each festival season. How do you come up with ideas for your booth and how long does it take you to set it up?

I call my booth the “Country Store.” It’s built with 100-year-old barnwood; it resembles an old western store and workshop… complete with antiques and memorabilia from family, including the history of the Sawdust and the artists. In my booth is my full jewelry workshop where I spend 10-12 hours making my jewelry every day. It takes two to three weeks to build and outfit my booth. I’ve been building this style booth for many years, and it has become an iconic fixture of the Sawdust.

You are a silversmith artist; you create beautiful jewelry and unique other silver pieces. How and where did you learn your craft and what is your daily inspiration?

After watching my brother and other silversmiths work, I was excited to try silversmithing. With the help of another silversmith in 1972, I created my first piece of silver jewelry- a bracelet with three stones. For my second piece, I created another bracelet and tried multiple techniques that included sheet overlay, stamp work, etching, stone setting, and chip inlay. This piece was the inspiration that encouraged and energized me into becoming a master silversmith. I wear that piece to this day. Art is my life, it’s my love and my passion, it’s what I do.

What is the process of creation like for you? Do you need to be in a specific state of mind to create? Please explain in detail.

Well, I tell people, as corny as this may sound, when I have the vision of the completed piece in my mind, it’s a matter of my hands creating it. Being born with a photographic memory and an artistic eye, inspiration could be from nature, other art, a book, music, or a conversation. Inspiration can come at any time, anywhere, any moment, in a dream, etcetera. There are times where inspiration is nowhere to be found, it’s just not there; sometimes, the harder you try, the more elusive it becomes, it’s often when life gets in the way. I carry a notebook and even have a pad next to my bed for when the vision comes.

I also do commissions and work with clients to try and turn their ideas into reality, which can be very challenging.

We learned about the Make-a-Wish-initiative at Sawdust Art Festival. You provide pennies that guests can throw in the fountain located close to your booth, and proceeds will be donated to the non-profit corporation. Can you tell us more about your involvement with Make-a-Wish? How long have you been collaborating with the non-profit and how many wishes for children have become true with the help of artists like you?

Over 10 years ago, it occurred to me that these were wishing ponds, and it would be most appropriate for the monies to go to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I ran this idea by the Board of Directors, and they unanimously agreed. At that time, I contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and had signs made to inform the public where the coins went. I’ve met some wish granters and a few wish receivers but due to the size of the organization, I don’t know exactly how many people we have specifically helped. Nevertheless, we are so pleased and proud to be able to contribute to this wonderful cause.

Among your contribution to the Make-a-Wish-initiative at Sawdust Art Festival, you have contributed to the festival in other ways. I read that you donated an antique clock to the festival that has been standing for over two decades. Furthermore, you are chairman of the board of Benevolence Fund trustees. Can you please share the Artists’ Benevolence Fund and its purpose with our readers?

I’ve been a part of the Artists’ Benevolence Fund since its inception, over 3 decades ago. The purpose of the Artists’ Benevolence Fund is to provide relief or aid to an individual working artist whose income is generated solely from their artwork, who has suffered an unexpected personal calamity or tragedy that has caused that individual to suffer personal financial hardship, and the inability to perform their craft, and who has no practical alternative source funds to solve that hardship. Through an application process, limited grants are available to an artist whose current residence is within the geographical area of the City of Laguna Beach.

Can you recall the most unique experience you’ve had with clients since you started exhibiting your art publicly? Why was this experience meaningful to you?

In 55 years at the Sawdust Art Festival, there have been numerous unique experiences, too many to count. To pick out one would be impossible, maybe 100. I’ve made jewelry for and met a number of well-known public figures that include Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Jonathon Winters, Muhammad Ali, and Kobe Bryant, just to name a few, as well as, dignitaries foreign and domestic, famous artists, musicians and more.

But by far the most meaningful experiences are always those when I see someone who has a sparkle in their eye and a smile on their face because they’ve had a truly unique and magical experience at the Sawdust Art Festival. Especially the very young, when they have watched art being made, glass being blown, or have created their own piece of art in one of our demo booths.

We are excited about future projects and where we can see your art next. Can you please tell us about your upcoming plans for 2024? Will you be returning to Sawdust Summer Art Festival?

I will be exhibiting at the 2024 Sawdust Art Festival and Winter Fantasy. I do 14 craft shows annually at Main Beach in Laguna, the Balboa Island Art Walk, the Dana Point Art Walk, and I am available all year long from my studio.

What has been the greatest achievement of your career so far? What is the legacy you would like to create with your art?

My greatest achievement is being able to make a living as an artist in Laguna Beach, and nothing makes an artist more happy than to see his or her artwork loved and appreciated from the moment they walk away with their piece, to return in a year, or five, or ten, with a smile and the same level of enthusiasm as the first time.

When you buy something from an artist, you’re buying more than an object. You’re buying hundreds of hours of errors and experimentation. You’re buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You’re not buying just one thing, you are buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul… a small piece of someone else’s life.

If you wish to learn more about the Make-a-Wish Foundation, please visit

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