One difficulty in teaching a high school Creative Writing program in Alabama is the lack of a central event nearby, like All State Band or a Thespian conference, where students can see tangible evidence that other people who live where we do actually do what we do. Creative writing competitions are typically handled through mailed-off submissions, and the results usually come through mailed-back answers, so the Kentuck Festival of the Arts was an answer to my teacherly prayers. Students who work together as intensively as mine need a release from the monotony of write-workshop-revise-repeat, and moreover, nothing can gel a group of teenagers like an out-of-town overnighter. Besides, this festival, which is ranked as one of the best in the nation, is right in our backyard, features over 250 artists, and is ripe to be written about.
I started taking my Creative Writing students to Kentuck ten years ago, the first time in 2009. The idea came from our school’s then-photography teacher Andy Meadows whose students display there, a tradition that has been continued by his successor Emily Thomas. Before Andy mentioned it and suggested that we come too, I hadn’t thought of taking writing students to an art festival, but it has turned out to be one of the best aspects of the program: having students to meet, interview, and write about some of the most unique and creative people they could imagine.
Having been founded in the early 1970s, this year’s Kentuck Festival of the Arts was the forty-eighth, and my eleventh. (I wasn’t founded until the mid-’70s.) Kentuck calls itself “A Heaven of a Place” and has year-round programming at the museum and art center, which includes art nights and exhibitions. 1971 was the centennial year for the small town of Northport, Alabama, where Kentuck is located. A Selma Times- Journal article from September of that year explained that the town, originally called “Cane Tuck,” was hosting a celebration from October 10 – 16 that would feature “items of days gone by.” The little folk-life festival was then on its way, starting small and local. (The musical act in 1975 was the Tuscaloosa County High School Band.)
By the time I started going with my students, Kentuck was neither small nor local. Northport is a town of about 25,000 people, situated on the other side of the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama. Its quaint downtown, comprised of two short blocks of shops and galleries, sits almost right under state Highway 69/43. On the weekend of the festival, traffic is completely re-routed to carry cars through downtown, under a dilapidated railroad bridge with ROLL TIDE painted on it, past the old cemetery and a smattering of houses, and after a left turn at a little store, into Kentuck Park.
On the Saturday morning of this year’s festival, it was cloudy and cool. It had rained hard the night before, but not hard enough to muddy the grassy fields where yellow-vested volunteers direct the car-parking. Though Kentuck Park itself isn’t very big, the shoulder-to-shoulder artist tents that line the walking path and wind through the middle make it seem that way. My habit has always been to walk the whole festival first, browsing and taking note of who I want to re-visit. While I admire so much of the art that’s displayed at Kentuck, there is a lot that I wouldn’t necessarily buy. However, I am a sucker for printers – letterpress, linotypes, block prints, screen prints, book arts, all of it – and those folks tend to get most of my attention (and money). I can’t really afford paintings or sculptures. Some of the craftier, mixed-media work is interesting to look at. I marvel at what some artists can do with wood. On a sentimental note, I also make a special trip to the booth of Jake Asuit, whose knives remind me of the collection my dad handed down to me before he died.
With my students scattered in all directions, seeking out the artists they selected to interview (and Lord knows what else), I made my rounds and spoke to a few people. My friend Randy Shoults, who makes pottery, was meandering around near his booth, waiting for customers. Charlie Lucas happened by while we talked, and he and Randy traded some wisdom on what it’s like to get old. Charlie, who is now 68, was pleased to report that he sometimes get carded when he asks for an “old-timer’s discount.” After that, I stopped by the Black Belt Treasures booth to say hello to Kristin Law, also a potter. I talked weather for a minute with a pair of ladies weaving baskets, and Kristin wanted me to meet a Sumter County journalist-turned-painter named Mike Handley, who was working on a small portrait of Bear Bryant nearby.
After my rounds and a bit of visiting, I headed first to the Green Pea Press booth. One of my favorites, this little collective is housed in Lowe Mill and has been at Kentuck for the last few years. I picked up t-shirts for my kids and a coozie that reads “Bama Beer is Better.” (True.) Then, I made my annual stop at the Kentuck tent to buy a festival t-shirt, so the souvenir-buying would be all done. I could get down to shopping for art— after I ate.
I had never heard of Archibald and Woodrow’s BBQ when I saw their metallic-gray food truck parked by the music stage among the picnic tables. The other options were Mexican and fair food, and although I’m also a sucker for chicken-on-a-stick, barbecue sounded best. Beside that, there was a line, and that’s a good sign when choosing a food truck. At the window, a young girl who looked ten or twelve took my order for a chicken sandwich and only replied, “That’s it?” without looking at me. I knew right then it was going to be good. People who serve killer food don’t have to be friendly, they just have to keep it coming. Thankfully, the wait was short. A teenage boy appeared at the little window, hollered my number, and handed me a box containing an overfilled chopped-chicken sandwich soaked in vinegar-based sauce. Me and my plastic fork made short work of it. No regrets.
By midday, a few excited students were appearing, as always, with good news to report. I interviewed So-and-So, and he was really nice! Some were also given small tokens from the booth, maybe a print or a button, or had bought something they were pleased to show me. There are two things that are hard for my students to grasp fully until they go and experience Kentuck for themselves: first, artists don’t go to crowded festivals to be stodgy and standoffish and difficult, and second, there is so much good art there. It’s fun seeing them realize that what I’ve been saying is true . . . and getting excited about it.
With the time that remained, I doubled back to Michelle McLendon‘s dark little booth full of handmade journals to get one for a friend, then picked out a birthday present for my mother from Sarah Cavender‘s busy, busy booth with jewelry from her metalworks. I’ve told people before that I’d like to go to Kentuck each year with $20,000 and a U-Haul truck, but so far I haven’t found a way to make that happen. In the meantime, deliberate thrift dictates the purchases.
The afternoon came on, and while waiting for my students to re-convene for the ride home, I indulged another of my annual traditions: watching the folks from Birmingham’s Sloss Furnace melt and pour metal. When we arrive first thing in the morning, they’re just firing the coke, but by afternoon, they’re steady pouring up the molds that festival-goers can buy to etch-in personalized designs. What I’ve never understood about their work is: how do you make a metal apparatus that can hold a fire hot enough to melt metal? It’s fascinating to watch. But once we had everybody gathered up, it was time to go. Back down Highway 82, through the Black Belt, and home.
A tradition is something that you keep doing because it works. I had never expected to lead an annual pilgrimage to an art festival so that eighteen to twenty high school Creative Writing students could learn to write feature articles among this mish-mash of the quirky and the tame. This tradition just happened that way, in part due to what Kentuck is, but also in part due my writerly willingness to defy my teacherly caution, and to look at an unlikely, unorthodox opportunity and say, ‘Heck, why not?’ It’s still not a central event convening folks who do what we do, but it is an annual reminder that nobody really does what we do.
Of all the trips we’ve made up to Northport, my favorite memory of the festival field trips didn’t happen during one of the good years. It involves leading a group of students through the parking lot in the pouring rain. Over the last decade, we’ve gone in all kinds of weather, in the cold and in the heat, no matter— we do research and set up the interviews in advance, parents shell out money for hotel rooms and food, and there are articles to be written when we get home, so we can’t just bail when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. That year, as the date of the festival had approached, rain chances had fluctuated, but the radar clearly showed a line of severe storms coming our way. In Alabama, storms can break apart and fizzle out, though, so my attempts to galvanize the mood of the two-dozen or so students, mostly girls, centered on one outlier weather report that had rain chances at ten percent. Yet, as they moped through the pouring rain that morning, soaked to the gills, walking in what we had all seen coming, a few grumbled as a chorus, “Ten percent, Mr. Dickson. Ten percent.” I couldn’t say anything back, they weren’t wrong. That year, we did our interviews and left fairly early – and drove home in the clear sunshine behind the front – but from time to time, for the rest of that school year, someone would periodically murmur, “Ten percent, Mr. Dickson.” And that was OK, because they got to see that things don’t always work out for me either.
Other related posts:
Road Trippin’: #Kentuck47, October 2018
Kentuck and the Boogie, October 2016
Two Printers at Kentuck, October 2015
A Brief Word on Kentuck, October 2011