FAYETTEVILLE — There’s a graphic bouncing around on Facebook that says the “earth” without “art” is just “eh.”
It seems like organizers of the Artosphere Festival had that very concept in mind when creating a community event that explores arts that are inspired by nature and celebrate it, but one that also brings new ways to experience the beauty of both.
The third annual festival, sponsored by the Walton Arts Center, continues to evolve in size and complexity. In its first two years, the event saw the participation of more than 40,000 people in total. This year, activities are grouped into two basic segments. Dance, lectures, artwork, kids’ activities and some music happen in May. Then, June features concerts by an orchestra specifically assembled for this festival.
Organizers liked the idea of looking at the world through artists’ eyes, as well as intersecting artistic works with artists who are exploring and looking at the environment, said Jenni Taylor Swain, vice president of programs at WAC.
“As a leader in arts and culture, we were very interested in what role we could take in talking about the environment and the issues that were part of the community, like sustainability,” she said.
The arts are emotive and can inspire people to act — to preserve, protect or enhance the natural world — more so than scientific data.
“We felt like we had a responsibility to show an emotive, artistic experience that might get people to be more enlightened or awakened to what they might could do,” Taylor Swain said.
This year’s festival explores nature, structure and sense of place, as well as the issue of sustainability. As an institution, the arts center continues to develop sustainable practices, such as having “hydration stations” where artists can refill reusable water bottles instead of continually handing out new plastic bottles. They’ve also made changes in the building’s operations, such as switching out lighting systems, and use environmentally friendly cleaning products.
“We believe that just the experience of thinking and awakening your perception — that itself is a step that’s required before one can make significant changes in one’s life,” Taylor Swain said. “And we value that experience. And we want people to come and see different perspectives. I think the power of the arts to evoke those sort of changes in people, it’s hard to measure, but we know that it’s powerful, and we know that it happens.”
This year’s Artosphere has a clear opening and finish. The Thursday (May 3) kick-off party at the Walton Arts Center includes the opening of the Structuring Nature art exhibition (on display through June 30), musical performances and a farmers’ market on the plaza, followed by a conversation and question-and-answer session with best-selling author and journalist Michael Pollan. He wrote In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. His Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual has been revised with illustrations by Maira Kalman.
“I found that very appealing that he wanted to collaborate with an artist,” Taylor Swain said.
The opening night activities, including performances by folk/Americana trio 3 Penny Acre and fiddler and songwriter April Verch, will be in conjunction with First Thursday in Fayetteville. Then, during First Friday in Bentonville, Verch and bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent will perform on May 4.
Bethany Goodwin, public relations manager, said they’ve also involved several restaurants in Washington and Benton counties, by offering tastings and demonstrations. Many have also incorporated special festival drinks and dishes into their menus, and will be on-site for some festival events.
Organizers looked for work that had a connection with nature, and they also decided to take people out into nature to experience the arts. The Trail Mix Concert Tours do the latter. Held May 5 on the trails at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, and May 6 at the Lake Fayetteville trail, the tours feature six bands playing blues, Cajun, jazz, Latin and bluegrass music. Musicians will play acoustic instruments or will use alternative energy provided by solar or bike-pedaled systems. Booths on the trails will offer information about sustainability practices.
Also on May 6, Milkshake, a band that creates rock music for children, will perform a family concert at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.
“They’re free and family oriented, and people love that,” said Goodwin.
When considering visual arts, organizers wanted to offer something in between the talented artists in the Fayetteville scene and the iconic museum-quality work featured at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
“We tried to figure out where we might fit into that landscape,” Taylor Swain said.
Artosphere became a platform to bring in noted artists, with specifically curated exhibitions that touch on nature. Organizers offered a $4,000 grant to artists and arts organizations to develop their own projects specific to Artosphere, and they received more than 20 applications.
One grant recipient was Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, a local company, which will present a theatrical walking expedition they call Alley 38 (named for one of the alleys they numbered on a Fayetteville map). The other was Massey Burke, who will be in residency May 7-22 and create a karst installation. Burke, a Fayetteville native, will work with community volunteers and use native clay soil and stones, straw, sand and other natural materials to create the unique earthwork.
Arts center staff members knew three years ago that they wanted to work with sculptor Patrick Dougherty, but this year was the earliest they could get him. Dougherty, with the help of volunteers, will create a semi-permanent “stickworks” installation during his May 10-28 residency. (Dougherty and fellow artist Robert Tannen will also discuss recently created outdoor artworks May 19 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with the lecture “Looking at Nature: As Art, as Object, as Community.”)
As the theme of structure started to emerge, festival organizers also added Polyglot Theatre’s We Built This City on May 19. Reusing thousands of cardboard boxes, children are allowed to build and destroy their own city. This innovative, interactive experience features a construction foreman and live music.
They also signed on Diavolo Dance Theater, a 10-member company comprised of dancers, gymnasts and actors. They’ll present performances May 11 and 12 of two pieces, Trajectoire and Fearful Symmetries, which explores man’s relationship to structure. There will be pre-show conversations and post-show parties.
Last year, in the festival’s second year, the arts center also created a festival orchestra to celebrate classical music. They wanted to bring in top-notch musicians for an intense period of rehearsal and performance, with a two-week residency. The 80 members of this ensemble hail from 26 states and 10 countries.
“They bring a level of enthusiasm, freshness, a sense of awe and wonder about our community, and a passion for their art form, and at this high level,” Taylor Swain said.
The arts center’s president and chief executive officer, Peter Lane, had worked previously with Corrado Rovaris and brought him on as conductor and music director for this festival orchestra. Rovaris is the music director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia (since 2004) and principal conductor of the Orchestra I Virtuosi Italiani, based in Verona, Italy.
The Artosphere Festival Orchestra will give three performances. A free performance June 17 at Berry Performing Arts Center, on the John Brown University campus in Siloam Springs, will feature works by Elgar and Walton, in an exploration of English and Italian themes of culture and locale. The same music will be presented June 18 at the Walton Arts Center, with tickets at $10 each, including a pre-show conversation and a post-show party.
The festival orchestra’s finale performance will be June 22 at the Walton Arts Center, with tickets ranging from $10 to $55. Musicians will perform works of Bartok and Brahms, including Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 1 in C Minor.
They are also taking the music into beautiful structures, such as Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. That’s where smaller groups made up of orchestra members will perform the Chamber Music Series Concerts.
Orchestra members wanted to do more than just play music, so they’re also scheduled to volunteer at some local farms.
Artosphere was named one of the top 10 summer festivals for families in 2011 by Road Trips for Families. And Taylor Swain is already working on next year’s event and has some interesting things in mind.
She’s intrigued by the interconnection and overlap of the individual events, and hopes people access the festival in many different ways. She said she can feel the momentum around this year’s festival, and feels like they’ve hit a “good stride. I know we have in the planning, the developing and the execution of the festival.” She anticipates that by the fifth year, “it will just be really exciting.”
Most Artosphere events are free or low cost. For a full schedule, ticket prices and more details, go here. Organizers will also offer a festival book that includes all festival details and sustainability tips.