Ridgeland rolls out red carpet for artists, patrons of 10th annual fine arts fest

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Ridgeland Tourism Commission

People view artwork from artists across the country at the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival, set for Saturday and Sunday at Renaissance at Colony Park in Ridgeland.

Ridgeland-based painter Chad Mars, one of 85 artists from around the country selected to display artwork in this weekend’s Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival, credits the quality of the artists’ work with making this festival, perhaps, “the best in the state.”

“It’s really very high quality and people come from all over, and, for Mississippi, that’s a big deal,” he said.

Fellow painters, as well as craftsmen, photographers, jewelers, sculptors and glassblowers, will display their work in booths along the streets of the Renaissance at Colony Park Saturday and Sunday, which commemorates the 10th edition of the festival.

“It’s a great show man, it really is,” said Harold Miller, a sculptor from Brandon, who is one of about a dozen artists from Mississippi participating in the festival. “I like the level of art there. I think it’s going to be big.”

Organizers expect between 12,000 and 15,000 attendees at the weekend’s events, which, apart from the artwork, include a 5K Run Now Wine Later on Friday, the Santé South Wine Festival, a children’s craft corner, food trucks and two live music stages. Entry to the festival is free to the public.

“We’re hoping that people, even if they’re not fine art enthusiasts, will come out and see the festival and event as an opportunity for an outdoor experience, enjoy the music and even learn more about the art,” said Mary Beth Wilkerson, one the organizers and the executive director of the Ridgeland Tourism Commission.

Five of the participating artists, including Miller and Mars, talked with Mississippi Today about their work, as well as their anticipation for the festival:

H.C. Porter, a Jackson native working in Vicksburg, has been both a participant as well as the ‘artist liaison’ for the festival since its inception. In the latter role, she recruits artists from around the country to apply for spots in the show. 

Q: Has the preparation been pretty busy?

A: Well, I’m the artists relations person — I’m not the art director — that’s Bob McFarland — and, then, of course, Ridgeland Tourism hosts it and puts all the manpower into it. I’m the one that runs around the country and touts our strengths and our success as an arts festival, and as a welcoming state in general, to try to entice all these incredibly talented artists to travel to Mississippi, when most of them have never been to Mississippi.

Q: What do you feel separates this festival from others in its genre and those in the region?

A: Well, one, it’s the way we treat the artists and the ease of the show. We try to act as any Mississippian would; it’s the hospitality state. Usually the Mayor of Ridgeland (Gene McGee) is there, Malcolm White, the director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, has often spoken. In all my years, it’s a rare opportunity to have the city officials present welcoming these artists. We really bring a high level of attention to the event.

Q: So, as one of the artists, you can be honest when you tell other artists how well they’ll be treated.

A: For sure, and they appreciate that, too. I think that makes a difference when you make it an artist-run show. I know how they want to be treated. I know what they expect from us. It helps.

Q: Do you get artists who are surprised by what Ridgeland has to offer?

A: I know they really talk about the people — how welcoming they are and how much more sophisticated we are than they expected, just because of the dragging national stereotypes. People’s expectations can be low, and we exceed them as patrons.

H.C. Porter

Q: As one of the participants, how do you decide which art to present?

A: Well, I’ve been a professional artist for 31 years, so I definitely have created a style that’s recognizable as a H.C. Porter painting. Personally, I’ve been working on different series. I did a large series about Mississippians on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina that premiered in 2008. And, then, most recently, a project called Blues @ Home: Mississippi’s Living Blues Legends, and that show has been touring different museum galleries for the last four years.

Q: On your website there’s a phrase you like to use when describing your work. You say you like to “respond to the realness” of your subjects. I was curious what you meant by that.

A: What I like to say is the viewer kind of completes the piece by bringing their own experience. Most of my pieces are figurative work, so you’re interacting with the person in the image, and the viewer is the one that completes the whole experience. The reality is your experience, in a way. It’s not necessarily what you’re seeing — that piece is going to be a narrative of the reality of (the subject), but what I’m trying to do is inspire people to go and connect with people beyond just that narrative of the individual in the piece and connect it to your own personal experience.

Ridgeland Tourism Commission

H.C. Porter’s work on display at the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival

Q: So it’s a joint reality?

A:  Exactly, in a way. I think what’s exciting about my work is, like people say, “It doesn’t just match your couch.” They’re thoughtful pieces, too.

Q: You’re in the “mixed media” category, so you use paint and  —

A: Silkscreen, it’s my photograph initially. So I take the photograph and then I silkscreen that image onto paper, sort of like how Andy Warhol did in the ’60s with the high-contrast ink image, and then I paint back on top of that ink image with acrylic and a Prismacolor pencil. And that just brings my colors to the pieces — whatever’s in my mind’s eye.

Greg Harkins, from Vaughn, gained fame after he gave then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan a rocking chair at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980. He has made chairs for four other U.S. presidents and approximately 75 senators and congressmen, he estimated.

Q: Is this your first year participating?

A: I have done it every year that they’ve had it. I’m the local boy who’s done good. I have a very unique product. It all came to me from an old man named Tom Bell. Mr. Bell was in the third grade when he started building chairs, and built chairs for 64 years. He didn’t go back to the fourth grade because he said he had all the education he needed. He’s the one that taught me.

I had planned on being a brain surgeon, and I was going to (make chairs) in between college and graduate school.

Q: How many chairs do you work on in an average day?

A: Well, there was a time when I made 1,800 a year, and that was just rockers, that doesn’t count straight chairs, bar stools, foot stools and all kind of things like that. And I had people working for me over the years, sometimes as many as six or eight. But I’m down now to making probably 140 to 160 (chairs a year). It used to be nothing. Man, I’d crank these things out. It’s a challenge just to get it built now. I still love it. I still breathe it. It’s like a religion. I can’t imagine ever not doing it, and I really have no intentions of ever retiring. They’ll pry my chisel out of dead, cold hands.

Harkins Chairs

Greg Harkins

Q: Is there one compliment or praise you’ve gotten about a chair over the years that sticks out to you?

A: I made a chair for Reagan, I made a chair for (former U.S. President George H.W.) Bush, and then I had the opportunity to meet Dan Quayle when he was running for vice president. I was at a show in Georgia, and he comes walking by with his entourage, and he says, “These are just like the chairs that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush have,” and I said, “Yes sir, I made them.” Then the people from the show wanted one of my chairs to give him as a gift. I said, “Could I deliver this thing to the Executive Office?” And he said, “Sure, you can.” He also sent me a Christmas card for 30 years. You know he sent out 100,000 of them or something like that, but he still sent one to me. It’s just that way. We had a lovely time talking.

Q: Is there a part of the chair-making process that really surprises people when you tell them?

A: I’ve been doing these things a long time. What I want is an apprentice, somebody I can teach, somebody I can give my equipment to. Tom Bell, when I met him, he was absolutely desperate for someone to teach this to, and I didn’t understand that. But now, at 66 (years old), I very much understand what his search was all about. I would hate to die and have all this knowledge left and gone. The first half of my life, I feel like I spent more time taking than giving, and the last part of my life I’ve been trying to be mindful of giving and not taking.

Harold Miller is a mixed-media sculptor from Brandon who uses reclaimed materials such as tin, cypress and furniture legs. He’s participating in the festival for the second time. 

Q: You’re in the “mixed media 3D” category?

A: Yeah, that’s focused on clay sculptures, on ceramics. The focal point is clay, but I use wood, tin. It’s a mixed medium.

Q: Tell me about the people in your sculptures.

A:  I do a lot of church figures, ladies going to church. I do these figures called wind figures to show motion in clay. It’s like a cloaked-figure and you can kind of see the cloak blowing. And I do these 3D wall-hangings, where they’re sculptures but there’s a painting in the background. I mostly do figurines about 16 inches tall.

Q: Are they based on real people?

Harold Miller

A: Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s a combination of people, people I kind of remember growing up around as a kid. I was a kid in the ’60s, and back in those days people really dressed to go to church, and I try to recapture that vision. They were fond memories. We used to have to go to church all the time, and there was a lot of emotion there. So, I get a chance to show emotions I remember as a kid, and I can kind of put that into clay.

Q: So it’s the emotion of being at church —

A: Spiritual emotions. I do blues figures, too. I do juke joint scenes. I do those scenes for the same reason — the intensity of the emotions was the same, it was just in different places. In my booth I have blues figures on one side and church figures on the other side. That’s because the house I was raised in there was a church across the street, and two houses down was a juke joint. It was interesting because I could stand on my porch at night and I could hear the blues. And, I could stand on the porch on Sundays and hear gospel. And sometimes, if the church ran too long, I could hear both.

Q: I read that you used to teach some classes.

A: I did. I taught at Oakley Training School, which is a detention center. I was down there for seven years. I do workshops now at community centers — not as much as I used to. I’m concentrating a lot now on my sculptures. I’m doing more work than I’ve ever done in this period of my life. And I’m doing more shows and festivals. I like the energy,  and I like to travel. I won best in show in Pensacola last year.

Every year I want to do something different. You don’t get good, you just get better. It’s a lifetime journey. You’re a lifetime student — constantly battling for perfection, that’s the fun part about it. Every time you sit in front of a sculpture table you learn something new.

Ellie Ali is a painter from New York City who has participated in the festival each year since it began. 

Q: How did you first hear about the festival?

A: H.C. Porter, she initiated putting the show together with artists she liked. And it was a brilliant idea, because when an artist can curate a show, it’s really nice. She invited a bunch of us and we came the first year, and I just kept coming back because of the wonderful community and serious art lovers.

Q: What were your impressions during that first year?

A: It turned out to be a very intelligent, serious, art-buying community. I went with optimism, but I was even more delighted than I expected.

Q: Do you feel like it has grown in terms of the artists or just the things to do at the festival?

A: It certainly has grown, the quality of the artists has improved every year, because I think people hear about the show from other artists, and new artists take a chance. It’s wonderful to see who’s taken that chance and discovered a new audience for themselves.

Ellie Ali

Q: Since it is a juried event, after the first few years that you got accepted, did you start expecting to get selected or did it have the same nerves of, ‘Will I or won’t I get in’?

A: I think there’s always kind of apprehension involved because we never know. You could be their favorite artist one year and then there could be a jury that doesn’t seem to love your work and you don’t get in. But I’ve been lucky. I think they just like me. The collectors come back. I have a bunch of people who come back every year. I hope they come again this year.

Q: Do you have a good relationship with the organizers?

A: Yes, they’re great people. They’re hard-working and they know what they’re doing, which is important for artists.

Q: How do you feel —either since you’ve started coming to the festival or just in the last few years — how your work has evolved?

A: I would like to say that my work changes all the time. You can recognize that it’s mine, but it does change. I think that’s something also that a lot of artists notice when you do these shows. You want to keep your work fresh and exciting.

Q: On your website it says you use jazz as an inspiration. It is still something that constantly inspires you?

A: It is, and I think you could ask most artists if they listen to music and you’ll probably get a very big percentage that listen to music while painting or sculpting or making jewelry. I think it’s connected — that part of your brain that receives the magic of music and sometimes then it can translate what comes out in your hands.

Q: Is their something about jazz in particular, like the unpredictability, that comes out in your paintings?

A: Yes, I think that the improvisational aspect of jazz is what kind of inspires the improvisational aspect of my work. I’m self-taught, so I don’t have a specific reference when I’m working; whatever inspires me, I just start working.

Chad Mars is a Ridgeland-based painter. He studied painting at the University of Mississippi and graduated in 2004, and he has been painting full-time for about five years.

Q: So you’re from the area?

A: Yeah, I grew up in Ridgeland, right down the road from the festival. I have a studio in Ridgeland that I’ve had for five years.

Q: Is this your first year in the festival?

A: I did it last year.

Q: Tell me about that experience compared to other festivals you’ve done.

A: I would say it’s top five sales of any festival I’ve done. I’ve probably done 50 or more (festivals), so it was really good for a first year.

Chad Mars

Q: Do you think the festival has been a vehicle for growing interest in fine arts for people in the area?

A: I really have no idea. I think it’s pretty amazing. It is a really good festival for the quality of the work that gets into it. It might be the best in the state. There’s really not a bad artist in the show.

Q: Are there new paintings you’ve been working on for this festival in particular?

A: I started a new series at the beginning of this year. I’ve been doing a similar style for the last few years, and it was starting to feel creatively that I needed to evolve somehow and take it in a new direction. I had sort of a profound life experience: For the first time in my life I developed a close relationship with God through Christianity. I had sort of a reborn experience while I was at the beach. For years I felt that whenever I’m close to water I sort of surrender my mind and am able to be open-minded, open-hearted and free, and I had this idea that it would be nice if I could have that experience wherever I went in life.

I had conversations with family and friends — all my friends are Christians — about this idea that if you surrender control of your mind to God and you start to replace your ego with God’s conscience, that you become free of trying to be in control of your life and have humility that things aren’t always going to be perfect. I started to think about how I could express this in the art. I stopped worrying that my art always has to be perfect, and allowed it to be more free-spirited.

Ridgeland Tourism Commission

Attendees viewing Chad Mars’ work at the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival.

Q: Do you think you’ve found a long-term style for yourself?

A: I think I’ve found a style for myself right now. I don’t even recognize myself from who I was 10 years ago. So I don’t know who I’ll be in two years, because I think art changes you. It allows you to be your authentic self and you evolve.

Q: Is painting a therapeutic process for you?

A: Definitely, I’ve been an artist since I was six years old. I was never really good in school, but I could sit for hours and draw. I’ve always had a really hard time in any work environment where I wasn’t in total control. That’s one of the better things about being an artist. I think a lot of artists have issues with authority.

The Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Visit the festival website for a complete schedule of events and list of participating artists. Judges will award $7,000 in prize money at the end of the festival.