Driftless Area Art Festival transforms Soldiers Grove park into colorful village

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September scenery and weather is usually perfect for the Driftless Area Art Festival. Last year, a record crowd of about 5,300 were attracted to the eighth annual event. (Submitted photo)
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Jamie Heiden was the 2012 “People’s Choice Award” winner at the Driftless Area Art Festival, taking the title for the third year in a row. The La Crosse area photographic artist is expected to be back at the festival this year. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

Every September, just as the region’s landscape becomes painted with the colors of autumn, the Soldiers Grove park transforms into a charming village filled with visual, performing and culinary arts for the Driftless Area Art Festival. Eighty select artists descend on the community and organize displays of their creations underneath the beautiful white tents that are arranged along the park’s edges. A large entertainment tent is in the center. This leaves a picturesque path, decorated with 150 seasonal plants from Read’s Creek Nursery, to be used by those strolling through the festival. Completing the grounds, picnic tables are scattered throughout, inviting event-goers to grab a bite and enjoy the extraordinary artwork and entertainment all weekend.

This year’s ninth annual Driftless Area Art Festival will be held this weekend, Sept. 14 and 15 at Beauford T. Anderson Park in Soldiers Grove, at the intersection of State Highway 131 and County Road C. Spend a few hours strolling through the exhibits. Taste some local fare and sip some local wines.  Listen to some great music. Take home some fine art and fine memories. Hours are Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The concept for the festival was born when the Crawford County Tourism Council and Community Development Alternatives got together to come up with plans to increase tourism in the county. They realized that there were a great number of artists in the region and yet very few outlets for them.

“So we decided an art festival was within our capabilities,” stated Jerry Quebe, the present event co-chair. “But we wanted to do what we could to make ours unique from the others. There are over 200 art festivals in Wisconsin, not to mention those in Minnesota and Iowa.”

As it has turned out, what sets the Driftless Area Art Festival apart is its focus on the remarkable, one-of-a-kind and peculiar.

“We’re not an arts and crafts fair,” he explained. “We accept jewelry, pottery, woodworking, and the kinds of media you might find at a fair, but we try to fall more toward the fine arts. For example, we don’t accept jewelry that’s made by assembling someone else’s beads. We look for the materials that are handmade and select exhibitors based on their distinctive artistic content.”

The festival has grown every year since it began. In its first year, about 2,000 attended and around $20,000 in art was sold. In 2012, over 5,300 people showed up and artists’ sales were about $108,000.

“We started out in Sugar Creek Park in Ferryville. We chose that location because of its proximity to Highway 35, but as our attendance grew, we also grew out of that location,” Quebe said. “We picked the new location because it has ample parking, a pavilion on the grounds and a campground nearby.”

In addition to the sheer size of the fest growing, the event has also become stronger in terms of artistic caliber.

“These people are professionals. They’re the real deal,” Quebe added.

For each festival, 80 artists are selected by a jury, comprised of local professional artists and the Art Festival Committee. In recent years, there have been about 100 to 110 applicants. Among the 80 chosen, 20 to 25 percent are new artists each year. This pushes applicants who may not be accepted to go back and reexamine their work, thus improving the quality of the exhibitions year after year.

Selection begins in January. Artists apply by submitting four images of their work and one image of their booth display, which must contain a significant amount of art. The jury considers the applicants and advises artists of their selection, providing feedback as requested.

Jury selection is a blind process. Digital presentations of the work are reviewed and artists are picked based on the jury’s desire to have a variety of creations at each festival. If, for example, there are a lot of jewelry entries, they must be whittled down to a smaller number in order to create a good balance with the other medias.

“Our jury takes great pride in assuring a quality festival. One year, we only selected 75 artists because we didn’t feel strongly about some of the creativity,” Quebe said.

When it comes to the performing artists and food vendors, the jury takes a break. But the committee still very much considers quality when hand-picking from those interested in being a part of the fun.

For the entertainment, the festival focuses mostly on music, but it has showcased regional poets and theatre groups and is open to other ideas. Usually four performers are chosen in the off-season.

For the food and drinks, seven “culinary artists” are picked to sell their products at the fest. More or fewer may be welcomed based on attendance estimates. Indulgences sold have included wine, beer, coffee, pastries, crepes, and wood-fired pizza as well as various mouth-watering entrees from the Dog House and Crawford County Restorative Justice booths.

“We ask all of our food vendors to provide organic components and we really stress locally grown,” Quebe noted.

Aside from the adult fun, the KidsArt Gallery tent is a popular destination at the fest. The work of students from all parts of the Driftless Area is displayed and awards are distributed to first-place winners in three age groups. The first-place artwork is then sold at a Spring Gala auction each May, with 100 percent of the proceeds going back to those kids’ school art programs.

In addition, young artists attending the festival are encouraged to create art in the Kids’ Creativity Zone.

To help cover the current $65,000 budget associated with the festival, artists pay jury and booth fees and food vendors pay a portion of their proceeds back to the committee.

Of course, sponsoring partners account for a great deal of the costs as well. In addition to Community Development Alternatives being a founding partner, Peoples State Bank is a presenting partner that has been assisting since the first year. The village of Soldiers Grove and the Soldiers Grove Community Development Corporation sponsor the artist’s reception prior to the fest. Wisconsin Public Radio is a publicity partner.

Furthermore, the Art Festival Committee of about 20 people and other local volunteers give 3,300 hours of volunteer time throughout the year toward the fall event.

“We have a very dedicated group which takes on the various responsibilities,” Quebe stated. “We manage to be organized and accomplish things when they need to be done. These are just good people. Of course, we’re always looking for more volunteers.”

So as you consider your weekend destination, keep in mind that the Driftless Area Art Festival promises to add a splash of culture to your life and an experience that will please the five senses.

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