I usually think of an art festival being held in a classy, Victorian building with the work of professional, world-renowned artists inside. Located in a heavily forested park covered in pine straw and dead leaves, The Kentuck Festival of the Arts was unlike any of my perceptions. Since 1971, this gem – whose name comes from the original name of the town when it was settled in 1813 – has attracted artists to Northport, Alabama. The festival acquired its nationwide fame through a focus on folk art, which gained popularity in the ’70s.
Kentuck Park is set up in an odd oval, shaped more like spilled water than a nationally known art festival, with artists in white tents lining the grassy area along a dirt path, each identified by a letter and number on a sheet of colored paper at the top of the tent. A playground is situated in the middle of the park, with a tie-dye demonstration to its left, and Kentuck’s information building stands between the gate and the playground.
When we arrived, I was delighted by the music – Americana, bluegrass, jug band, Southern rock, and Delta blues – and the distinct smells of cinnamon, Mediterranean sausage, and freshly made funnel cakes wafting from local food trucks. With so many white tents and amazing artists to choose from, it was hard for me to determine where to start. Traveling counter clockwise along the worn-down dirt path, I searched the sea of people to find an artist that caught my eye.
A mixed media artist from Hawkinsville, Georgia was kind enough to give me a few minutes of her time. A retired special education teacher, Miz Thang‘s sandy blonde hair graced her denim ball cap while sporting a bright tie-dye shirt, paint-spattered blue jeans, and equally chromatic sneakers. She explained that she “always had a thing for colors” and “loved how colorful and free flowing they were.” She also told me she has always been into art and started doing her own in the early 1990s. She has attended the festival since 1998 and justified that by stating, “I love that it’s outside and it’s always great weather here.”
Miz Thang informed me that the theme of her art changes every so often. “Last year I was into wild women, this year it was the blues and the circus.”
When I asked about her name she said, “I was at a show in Scottsdale and I have an enamel tabletop with this curvy, voluptuous woman named Miz Thang. And when people passed by they said ‘Oh yeah, that’s you.’ And I just said yeah, it is me.”
As I started to leave, two of her paintings begged for my attention: one of the presidents and the other of their first ladies— all painted blue! The presidents, just like their first ladies, were in an oval surrounding the White House. Miz Thang told me, “It was really fun doing the research for this project. William Taft got stuck in the bathtub and Barack Obama collects Spiderman comics. It was even more fun researching the first ladies than it was the actual presidents.”
After browsing Miz Thang’s tent one last time before leaving, I stopped to talk with Ruth Robinson, a mixed media artist with a story to tell— well, many stories actually. A short, soft-spoken woman, Robinson is from Grand Bay, Alabama, though she has family in Tuscaloosa. Her style focuses on African American culture and her religious background, which is clear in her depictions of dark faces and people dressed in robes.
“All of my works are from real life experiences; people I have known, things I have done, and places I have gone,” Robinson said about her works, which are mostly created from ancient wood. “This one here is actually about how we used to ride on my grandfather’s tractor when we were younger,” she said pointing to one.
Further down the trail, the artwork of Josh Cote nearly grabbed me and swung me over to his tent! The Bakersville, North Carolina native rocked blonde dreads to the middle of his back and sported a dapper all-black suit. Cote is a well-spoken man who cares about how his art is represented. The style of his wire sculptures based on animal figures recreates foot-long ants and monkeys life-like in height and features. He chose to work with wire mainly because “[i]t stands out, and it’s so unique.” It can take him hours to months to complete one piece of work, depending on how elaborate it is.
This was Cote’s third year at the festival. He comes back because “[i]t’s a great festival and has a great variety of artwork.”
The Kentuck festival isn’t limited to individual artists. There were college groups also there to display, demonstrate, and sell their work. Crimson Clay is a group of students from the University of Alabama who focus on ceramic creations.
One student, Jenna Cape, told me, “I did some pottery in high school and this is my second year in the program. I’m actually a fourth generation potter, but my family didn’t want to tell me until they knew that I was really interested.”
There was so much humanity at Kentuck that I almost forgot I was at an art festival. Some artists took so much pride in their work that they seemed to forget how to interact with people. The artists I spoke to cared what I thought of their art, and of them as people. Whether you come for the outrageous artwork or enchanting blues tunes, one thing is clear: no matter where you are from , you won’t be disappointed.