It started in 2005 as the Crawford County Art Festival; today, it’s the Driftless Area Art Festival, drawing artists from all corners of the Driftless region.
Every year, the art festival shows steady growth. Every year, about 20 percent of the artists at the festival are new to the event. That means 80 percent are back for a second, third, or in the case of nine artists, ninth time. Seven visual artists, one performing arts group, and one culinary artist have exhibited, played or vended every single year since 2005.
“So much talent gathered in one place – that’s what makes this such a wonderful event,” said Mary Heath who, along with her colleagues in Mary’s Berries, is one of the culinary artists at Driftless Area Art Festival. It’s also a favorite for Heath, who has been a part of the festival since its beginning and will be returning again this year.
Now in its ninth year, the weekend festival, September 14 and 15, will bring together visual, culinary and performing arts and attract art lovers from across the Driftless region and attendees from well beyond, according to zip codes of visitors who filled out surveys as they left the event in prior years.
There have been changes since the event’s first year in Ferryville.
Attendance has grown from around 2,000 to over 5,000 and the number of artists involved has increased, as well, from53 artists in 42 booths to 80 artists in 78 booths. Sales have also increased, encouraged in part by the Purchase Award program, begun in 2007 through which visitors can commit in advance to purchase a given minimum worth of art. All proceeds go directly to the individual artists whose works are purchased.
The artists also represent increasing diversity in their media, bringing both two-dimensional art, like painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking; and three-dimensional works, like sculpture, ceramics, wood and metal work, fiber and glass art, and jewelry. Anticipating growth meant the need for more space, and hence the move in 2007 to Beauford T. Anderson Park in Soldiers Grove. A wider array of food and beverage vendors was added, the number of musical groups and the size of the performance stage grew, and the size of the volunteer force grew as well.
Kay Campbell, whose pottery studio Kay’s Potiques is well known in Ferryville, was one of the founding members of the festival and has served on its organizing committee ever since. She pointed to initial grants from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, the increasing support of individuals and local businesses, the Friends group started in 2010, and the cohesiveness, enthusiasm and organization of the committee as keys to the festival’s continued growth.
Barbara Hart Decker of LaCrosse, who creates collages, “paintings with paper,” reflected that, from the first event in Ferryville, “I knew it was good, knew it would last. But we also knew that it would outgrow the setting, and it did.”
Decker, along with other of the returning artists, likes the chance to meet other artists and see their work. And one valuable change over the years has been the development of the Kids Art and Teen Art Galleries. Encouraging young artists, she said, is an important contribution to the life of the community.
Watercolor artist Anne Tedeschi of Ferryville agrees with Decker. Besides her own work, she has focused the past three years on developing the Teen Art Gallery because aspiring teen artists “need audiences and encouragement, not only from their teachers but also from mature artists,” who can give critique and direction. Enthusiasm for the Teen Art Gallery has been growing among young artists and teachers, she said. Similarly, the numbers and the quality of pieces exhibited by younger artists, in the KidsArt Gallery, have expanded, requiring increased tent size and bringing more and more kids and their families into the festival. Free admission and ample free parking have added to the family-friendly atmosphere.
William Waite of Prairie du Chien makes his living selling clever wooden puzzles through his website and at art fairs. Deloras Vind of Arcadia, who raises heritage breeds of sheep, uses their wool in her woven and felted art pieces. And Susan Louise of Viroqua creates polymer clay art and silk painting. Like the other four visual artists who have been present every year, they appreciate being a part of an event that is “of the area.”
“The festival is a good showcase for the loveliness of the Driftless Area,” said Marlene Meyer, oil painter from Soldiers Grove. “The festival brings together the food, music and visual art in the lovely setting of the Driftless Area.”
And it brings artists together, sparking ideas and helping the individual artists to grow. Like other artists, Meyer says she’s grown in her work, in part through feedback from fellow festival artists and the public.
Feedback includes informal comments among artists or from art lovers as they visit booths and chat with artists. Two formal programs initiated in the past few years include the People’s Choice Award, which allows festival goers to vote for their favorite artist and which results in a ribbon and a cash prize; and the Committee’s Choice Award, also a ribbon and a cash prize, to the artist whose body of work is judged best of show by members of the festival’s organizing committee.
Visitors often stay a good part of the day, and food and entertainment are important, Campbell said. “Over the years we have more and more emphasized local and organic content, and vendors and customers alike appreciate that.”
The musicians at the festival have local roots and are locally known. Gays Mills singer and guitarist Jane Keeley, who along with Kevin Dohse and Tim Jenkins, form the core of the River Ramblers, brought the art of her music to the first festival and has returned each year because “It’s fun to be there.” Visitors can enjoy eating lunch in the performance tent, music is piped across the grounds, and, Keeley says, “The response is great.”
The Driftless Area Art Festival, in Beauford T. Anderson Park, Soldier’s Grove, opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, except for early entry for Purchase Award buyers, and runs through 5 p.m. on Saturday. Sunday hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free and there’s ample free and convenient parking.
Major funding partners for the festival include Peoples State Bank, Community Development Alternatives, the Village of Soldiers Grove and its Community Development Corporation, and Wisconsin Public Radio. Other benefactors include Dependable Solutions, Inc., Organic Valley Family of Farms, Rooted Spoon Culinary, Richland Grant Telephone Cooperative, Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative, and Sleepy Hollow Auto.
Full details, including a complete list of visual artists, performing artists, food vendors, partners and sponsors plus information on becoming a Friend or a purchase award patron, are available at www.driftlessareaartfestival.com.