Last Saturday was not a good day for the Fall Festival on Ponce. Nothing about the weather felt festival-y in the slightest — not the slight mist covering the bungee jump ropes or the inflatable slides, not the shadows lingering on the sidewalk, not the stiff wind making the tents flap against each other like wet noodles. No, the only thing that felt like a festival were the approximately 150 local artists that gathered in Olmsted Linear Park to celebrate their handcrafted artwork, eager to share their stories and their work — weather be darned.
As soon as I stepped into the park, I was so overwhelmed by everything happening around me that it was hard to decide what to explore first. The smell of freshly toasted sandwiches, corn dogs and roasting ribs wafted through the crowds, along with the sounds of giggling, fidgeting children getting their faces painted, dogs straining on leashes and several live Georgian bands. But the only thing that truly caught my attention were the lines of white tents sprawling in every direction, each containing a talented artist and their wares. The art ranged from ceramic pottery and plates to leather stereos and textured paintings to handcrafted soap and bath salts, reversible hats with pockets, twisted metal bottle openers, gemstone-studded headbands, exotic plants, specialty guitars and nearly every imaginable kind of jewelry.
As with many things, you can experience an arts and crafts festival the boring way or the fun, proper way. The boring way involves wandering in and out of stalls, occasionally fingering an affordable necklace or complimenting a delicate-looking wind chime. The exciting way entails looking at the most expensive items on display, taking pictures mimicking the giant metalwork statues, gushing about your favorite pieces of their work to a flattered artist and asking more questions than duly necessary — how long it took to make a piece, what materials were used, where their inspiration came from. After buying a dainty set of turquoise teardrop earrings from Javier Vargas of SerezDesign, my friend asked where he got the gems.
“I mined this turquoise from the Andean Mountain range, right next to the ruins of Machu Picchu. I almost fell down the cliff while working, and I remember my uncle dragging me back by my shirt collar,” the artist responded.
Every artist had a different story, and their work reflected these stories. Jerome Vason, an independent acrylic and oil painter, explained that he loved painting as a child but didn’t pursue it as a career until after leaving the army. Despite the hardship he experienced, he brings life to colorful, abstract paintings that literally jump out at you in what Vason calls “extreme texture.” “I put my spirit, all my spirit, into my work,” he said.
A husband temporarily manning his wife’s booth of paintings was unable to give specific details about her art. He only started opening up when I mentioned how much positivity the paintings radiated, with their thick, bold lines and rich colors. I said that his wife must be a very happy woman. “Last month, our trailer was stolen. Everything we had, and 80 original paintings by my wife, gone. She can’t recreate them because she gets sad and upset,” he said. “If you had seen those, you would have said my wife seemed much, much happier than these,” he added a beat later.
It’s hard to pick a favorite part of the festival. Of course, the freshly-squeezed lemonade was amazing, not to mention all the wet dog kisses I enthusiastically received or the handmade copper jewelry I bought. But the best part was the rich sense of community, creativity and common interest in the air, in every supportive touch or word of encouragement.
When a group asked one artist how his sales were going, he shyly replied, “Our first customer bought the most expensive thing we had.” This statement was received with cheering and pats on the back, with no bitterness or jealousy. Artists constantly asked each other if they needed to stall-sit for a bit so others could have a quick break.
When I asked the wrong person about the price on a miniature stuffed alien keychain, the neighboring artist covered for her until she got back. Two women working the Black Mermaid Soaps stall literally pampered me with different samples of “earthy” or “flowery” lotions, and pushed a free sample into my hands on the way out.
In today’s world, it’s easy to take beauty for granted. To appreciate a classical painting for its dark color scheme and contrast is a great skill; to admire the skilled metalwork in a necklace chain is always a good thing. But art festivals like the Fall Festival on Ponce emphasize the artist behind the art, the story behind the work. It’s the difference between online shopping and watching Nelms Creekmur, a professional local blacksmith, hammer out my friend’s initials on the back of a brass cuff she bought. A simple conversation with an artist might not seem like much, but small gestures like that help us appreciate the meaning of the little things in life that we love, but tend to overlook.
— By Emily Li
Photo by Diana Kantarovich