The Art of Community

By Beacon Staff

There’s an art festival in Bigfork this weekend. And maybe another art festival would be no big deal, until you consider that it’s the Bigfork Festival of the Arts and this year it celebrates its 35th year of art in the community. Art and community: In Bigfork, those words are kind of like mom, country, and apple pie.

The festival started with Elna Darrow, a name that comes up a lot in connection with Bigfork events that seem perpetual in their nature. The Riverbend Concert Series, Tamarack Days, the Festival of the Arts: She was instrumental in all of them, and all have at their core the sense of community. “Elna didn’t start the sense of community that’s so prevalent in Bigfork,” festival co-chair Gretchen Gates explains, “but she did embrace the concept and incorporate it into everything she did.”

Donna Lawson, the other festival co-chair, expands on that. “Volunteerism is a big part of community, and Bigfork events are run by volunteers from the community. The festival, for example, has a committee of eight residents that plans it and another 50 or so that actually make it run.”

So just what is the festival? “Art and artists are the main attraction,” says Gretchen. “This year we’ll have 145 artists with art forms including wood, stone, fiber, pottery, paint, jewelry, and several others. All have been juried and only the best have been invited to participate.”

Best? Donna elaborates. “In addition to the general quality, we judge art on its originality, how much it costs, and how it’s displayed. Regarding cost, we try to select artists selling products over a wide range of prices. The festival is intended to be a family event, so it’s important that even the kids find something they can buy. This year the prices of art range from $5 all the way up to $25,000.”

“It’s a requirement that the artists be present at their booths,” notes Donna. “An important aspect of the festival is that the attendees get an up close and personal feel for the art. This means having the artist on hand to describe how the pieces were made or what was on his or her mind while producing a particular piece. We want people to participate in the festival, not just look at it.”

“And we jury the food vendors, as well,” adds Gretchen. “Bigfork already has several good places to eat. But we try to extend the concept of festivity to the food and bring in things that you can’t get at the permanent restaurants. This year we have fourteen vendors offering things like kettle corn, corn dogs, and crepes.”

“And there’ll be music too,” she continues. “We’ll have musicians onstage from 9 to 4 both days. Some, like Jae Hatt, are professionals. Others, like the singers from the Bigfork Community Players, sing for the pure joy of it. We like the mix.”

Donna has been chairing the festival for 10 years now and Gretchen has shared that role for the last eight. So, what’s changed over that period? “Maybe the mix of the art,” she says. “And we changed the layout a couple years ago, putting the booths in the middle of the street.

Almost everyone loves the new arrangement. The artists like it because they now all have corner booths. And the downtown merchants like it because everyone has ready access to their shops and they feel more a part of the festival.”

So what’s in the festival’s future? “It’s a great art show and a great community event,” Gretchen notes. “I’d like to see it go on forever.”

Donna expands. “Yes, but we’re going to turn it over to the next generation pretty soon. It’s important to get the younger people of our community involved. In a viable community, the people will change but the spirit that draws people together has to go on.”

The Bigfork Festival of the Arts will happen, rain or shine, on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 3 and 4, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.. Booths will stretch from the bottom of the hill on Grand Avenue around the corner and down Electric Avenue toward the bridge. Admission is free.

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