Gallery: Art for Austin’s sake

Published 11:55 am Monday, August 27, 2012

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ArtWorks Festival debut celebrates talent near and far

Austin residents came together at the old Austin Utilities building Saturday and Sunday to take in a vast spectrum of visual, written and musical art.

The first Austin ArtWorks Festival welcomed in a large crowd of all ages. Artists both local and nationally-acclaimed displayed a variety of works, from paintings and photographs to sculpture and glassblowing.

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Organizers — who stood watching as visitors ordered snacks from the various food trucks, stopped to watch the stage performances and headed over to the artwork — praised the turnout as an auspicious start.

“It just came together so beautifully,” said Bonnie Rietz, co-chair of the festival committee and former mayor of Austin. “We’re so pleased.”

Co-chair Belita Shindler agreed, saying the committee’s reaction to the first few hours of the festival Saturday included watching, mouth agape, as people strolled about the festival and thinking, “Wow, it worked.”

All artists involved in the festival had a connection to Austin, she said. Some were graduates of Austin High School or Pacelli, while others spent part of their childhood in the area or focused their careers here for a time.

Arranging for all the artists to congregate in Austin at the same time was no small feat. Bruce Loeschen, who spearheaded that side of organizing the festival, said convincing artists to make the trip was initially very difficult.

Eric Anfinson was critical to turning that around. The painter agreed to come all the way from his studio in Key West, Fla., to present his work. The move started some momentum with the other artists.

“[Anfinson’s] coming,” Loeschen said he told them. “Don’t you want to be in this high-class show?”

Soon the event was snowballing, and participants coming from faraway states helped convince others who debated whether to make the drive from lesser distances.

“You only have to drive from Chicago,” Loeschen said. “What’s the big deal?”

Some local artists were hesitant about participating, too, Loeschen said, saying the old Utilities building didn’t seem like a promising setting. But as publicity began to pick up and the word spread, many warmed to the idea. Toward the end of preparations, the committee had to turn away some artists because they had run out of space.

One of the benefits of seeking out artists was finding local talent organizers didn’t know about.

“We had a glassblower living in Austin and didn’t know it,” Loeschen said.

Artists were on-hand to talk about their work and artistic process, and many works were for sale.

Eleven stage performances and nine author talks kept visitors active in all areas of the festival, and children were invited to let their artistic side out painting a Volkswagen in the “Brush the Beetle” activity. Janelle Voigt watched as 3-year-old Moyra painted fresh lines of color on an already multicolored vehicle.

“When she saw this, she was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’” said Voigt, adding that it was the first thing that drew them over Saturday afternoon.

Apart from a celebration of the arts, the festival was also a way for Austin residents to get a glimpse of the Utilities building’s interior, Rietz said. The indoor spaces were a curious mix of vibrant, festive décor and worn industrial instruments. Metal grates separated the festival areas from other rooms but allowed visitors to examine the building itself even as they perused the artwork inside it.

Those with thoughts on the building were welcomed to speak their minds. A table in the gallery room asked residents what they would like to see happen during the Utilities building’s planned Vision 2020 renovation.

Visitors submitted ideas and checked out some computer renderings of possible uses, which split the three floors: a museum on the main level with various other activities, a children’s activity zone on the second floor and a restaurant area with rooftop space on the third.

George Brophy, a volunteer at the festival, is also a sales worker with RSP Architects, the firm that made the computer renditions. He said the firm was working the numbers right now, but was hoping the building would end up “like a student union” on a college campus, with food, activities and leisure space all worked into one structure. Brophy is currently on the Vision 2020 committee for the Utilities building renovation.