All the pieces come together for a rousing celebration of Black Swamp Art Festival’s 25th year

Blind Boys of Alabama wrap up their Saturday night show.

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

Take some music, art, and food, add lots of sunshine and clear skies, and 1,000 volunteers to cook it all up, and what you get is the 25th Black Swamp Arts Festival.

This festival couldn’t have been more a contrast to the first festival in 1993, which was plagued by rain and ended in debt.

This year the weather was close to perfect with day time temps in the high 60s dipping into the low 50s as the night wore on.

“We think we had our best year ever,” said Todd Ahrens, who chairs the festival committee.

That means unlike that first year the future of the event is secure. The festival surveyed patrons over the weekend, he said, to get their perspective about the event, and ideas for the future.

Amy Craft Ahrens, who chairs the concessions committee, said that all those “with a financial stake” in the festival. That included downtown business who had strong sales and the food concessions.

“Supporting the concessions supports the festival,” she said.

Birds of Chicago perform on Youth Stage.

The festival’s financial base is a three-legged stool – a third from beverage sales, a third from artist booths fees and concession fees, and a third from fundraising. It costs about $180,000 to stage the annual event.

Linda Brown, a member of the visual arts committee, said that artists reported that they had a successful weekend, ranging from good to their best weekend of the year.

Among those was Emily Wilson, who said the show has been consistently her best in the four years she’s been in the show.

Painter Jen Callahan said her sales were “fantastic.”

“We did phenomenal,” she said, “better than Ann Arbor,” a reference to that city’s iconic street art fair.

Jen Callahan’s paintings on display

This was her first show in Ohio, and she attributed her warm reception to being a fresh artist at the festival.
“The people are very art savvy,” the Florida artist said. “I got a lot of questions on my art. That makes it more enjoyable to me.”

Charles Gabriel, a photographer from Toledo, said he’d shown his work in the Wood County Invitational Show, the past few years and decided to apply for the juried show. He got in and he was “exceptionally” pleased with having made the switch.

Juliann Fausel, of Annadele Alpaca, said she was glad to be in the show not just for the sales but for the quality of the festival itself, calling it “the best run.”

If she returns, though, Fausel said she’ll make sure she brings more orange merchandise.

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Festival goers visit H.C. Warner’s booth

ultimedia artist H.C. Warner, a multimedia artist, whose booth featured fantastic large sculptures that are at once childlike and a bit disturbing.

His sales were lackluster. He said he realized his work was “an acquired taste.” He’s headed next to Riot Fest in Chicago. He tends to do really well at music festivals. He liked the BG scene, though, calling it “Mayberry on steroids.”

He was philosophical about sales. “My other intention is to inspire.” If he’s done that, he said, then the show’s a success.

Brenda Baker, who chairs the visual arts committee, said that she feels this year “was one of the strongest shows we had.”

The way the new artists presented their work was gratifying. Sometimes that’s hard to predict from the slides used to decide who will be in the show, she said.

Many artists told Brown that they were honored to be included in such a high quality show.

“The show is fantastic,” said Loren Fedorowicz, who runs Walnut Street Gallery in Wooster. She visits art fairs “to scout for different artists” to feature in the gallery she’s run for 16 years.

Fedorowicz said she felt that Black Swamp had “a great representation of different kinds of artists.” She said he expects she’ll come to the festival again. “It’s important to keep American art alive.”

Molsky’s Mountain Drifters perform on the Acoustic Stage

American music, from gospel to mariachi, with some Afrobeat mixed in, was alive at the festival as well.

The Youth Arts and Acoustic stages gave audiences a chance to hear Main Stage acts up close.

During the Birds of Chicago set on the Youth stage, JT Nero, who grew up in Toledo, noted that he and a couple of his bandmates used to play in Bowling Green. “Right there,” he said pointing to Howard’s Club H just a few yards from the stage.

The stages also featured local performers such as Justin Payne, who took the opportunity to play some original songs from his forthcoming CD during an acoustic stage set.

The focal point of the weekend in the Saturday night show that featured Flor de Toloache giving their own twist on traditional mariachi, Motown, and Led Zeppelin.

Flor de Toloache’s Eunice Aparicio

Eunice Aparicio, the quartet’s guitarron player, took the stage wearing a souvenir from their Youth Arts stage set, one of the festival’s signature floppy paper hats.

Then came the Blind Boys of Alabama. The band traces its roots back more than 70 years, and those roots live on in lead singer Jimmy Carter, the one original member still touring.

Carter is still the group’s spark plug, announcing numbers and cajoling the crowd. The band has a new album coming out, “Almost Home,” and they opened up with several songs from it. Those songs, based on the true stories of the Blind Boys and written by a collection of high-powered collaborators, were heartfelt and soulful.

Then Carter signaled that the group had done its duty promoting the album, and the band, which already had the audience in the palm of its hand, shifted into full jubilee mode. The Blind Boys may sing “I Shall Not Be Moved,” but the audience was.

They closed the set with gospel standards, stretching them out with solos and rousing five-part harmonies.

On “Amazing Grace” tenor Paul Beasley unleashed with his voice soaring into the very top of his range.

“Look Where He Brought Me From” turned into a free flowing gospel jam with Carter moving into the audience, thrilling fans such as Dan and Karen Cota, whom he greeted.

Amayo of Antibalas

Following the emotional catharsis of the Blind Boys, Antibalas, an Afrobeat band from Brooklyn, took the stage with their own form of spiritual healing. The 12-piece ensemble delivered churning groove that cut through the crisp air as they layered West African ritual rhythms with American funk and jazz.

The early fall chill took a bit of a toll on the late night crowds, but Craft Ahrens said large crowds throughout the weekend mitigated any loss from people heading home early Friday and Saturday nights.

Many artists, who are festival regulars, said they thought the Saturday crowd was the biggest they’ve ever seen here.

It was also evident that many students and parents in town for Family Weekend had ventured from campus.

Nikki and Matt Hill close out the festival on the Main Stage

The party kept rolling until the very end, as rhythm ‘n’ blues diva Nikki Hill, her voice colored by a girlish growl, had people out front of the stage dancing as closing time approached.

As tear down began, Kelly Wicks, one of the founders, pointed to a newspaper article written by the late Chris Miller previewing the original festival that’s displayed inside Grounds for Thought. It’s clear reading about what the founders intended back then that the festival 25 years on is still true to its ideals.

 

 

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