The Kentuck Puzzle

Since 1971, the Kentuck Festival of Arts has been held in mid-October in Northport, Alabama. Kentuck comes from the original name of the city, referring to the large amounts of cane that used to be scattered throughout the area. With artists each being a small piece of a jaunty puzzle that is the Kentuck Festival of Arts, the works have been picked by Kentuck’s organizers after an extensive entry process. The styles among the festival’s artists range from folk to contemporary while incorporating their eclectic pieces such as clay, fiber, glass, metal, photography and sculptures. Over the two days that the festival is held, about 12,000 people pass through the worn gates.

As I entered the festival, I was handed a pamphlet with a map of the park, including the whereabouts of the artists and activities, and I looked around the festival. Struggling to take all of it in and soon noticing the distinct contrast of the multicolored art against the hundreds of white tents, the whimsical atmosphere gave the place a sense of blithe comfort, inspiring me to pick up a paint brush. The air was expectantly cool, pinching at my “too cute to wear a sweater” skin. A mulch path led among the tents to food trucks and pavilions, overwhelming me with decisions to make, and I soon fell in love with art whose creators I hadn’t intended on interviewing. I haphazardly ditched my list. I saw a hut filled with tie-dye supplies for children and made a mental note to stop by later to release my inner six-year-old. Strolling behind my friends as they spoke to the artists they had chosen, I tried to find the courage to interview someone, too.

Ruth RobinsonRuth Robinson’s gospel-themed art captures true stories from her life growing up on a farm in Tuscaloosa. All of Ruth’s paintings have the tale of the goings-on depicted in the art inscribed on the back. The majority of her work is done on old, wooden canvases, giving it a more natural look. Intrigued by her personal touch on all of her paintings, I asked Robinson which one her favorite was, and she brought me to the front of her tent and pointed. The piece had a cluster of bodies with blue faces and simple clothing splayed out on a red rectangle; above the people was what appeared to be a small church, enclosed by an orange barn-like fence. Robinson called this “Heaven on Earth.”

Later in the morning, I approached a pottery-filled tent of a young woman who made me feel at ease due to our proximity in our ages. She introduced herself as Jenna Cape and told me she attended the University of Alabama. Cape had struck an interest in pottery when she entered college, without the knowledge that she was a fourth generation potter herself! The ceramics were mainly mugs and bowls with pale, faded designs, though I spotted a jewelry dish coated in a mixture of pink-and-white paint that I could already imagine sitting on my nightstand. I had to buy it, especially since it only cost twenty dollars. I was informed that it was made by Cape’s professor Matt Mitros, who had been featured in magazines and newspapers all across the country, and with a starry look in her eye. Cape murmured, “He’s going to be famous.”

With the sun rising higher, more people began to file into the festival. I shuffled through them in attempt to find a food truck that would satisfy my combination of hunger and cold. I settled on a Mediterranean flatbread with roasted vegetables and cheese, but my stomach apparently was expecting more. In turn, I got a small side of french fries to fill me up . . . and warm up my fingers!

After eating, I interviewed an artist who was on my original list: Laurie Popp (pronounced “pope”). She lives on a farm with her husband and their herd of sheep and cows. Popp’s collection of figures has been felted out of the wool from her sheep, then stuck with sticks to create limbs. Though most of her figures are animals, her current favorite piece, “How the Forest Was”, is a small three-dimensional model of a rain forest. She creates anything in nature that inspires her. With a smile, she added that her husband wouldn’t let her get her favorite animal – a pig – for fear of her loving it too much to eat it. Popp said that her art keeps her busy, consuming lots of time and energy. I asked what her advice to future generations would be, and she momentarily searched for the rights words, finally settling on, “Take care of the planet because it’s the only one we have so far.”

After waltzing around the festival and admiring the art, I got down to business— tie-dying! To tie-dye a handkerchief was no charge, while a t-shirt would set me back five dollars. Accepting nothing but the best, I chose the latter. Having no shame as I towered over the small children, I doused my t-shirt in red, violet, and turquoise dye. I smiled childishly as a girl who appeared to be my age (or maybe younger) wrapped my masterpiece in a plastic bag, and tossed in a small sheet of paper with instructions on how to care for the shirt.

Driving away from the festival grounds, I tried to absorb as much as Kentuck as I could, taking thousands of mental pictures and storing them away in my brain for later. The people were benign, the art was moving, and I’m excited to return in 2016.