Full Circle: Spart-town, USA

Published 8:04 am Friday, August 19, 2016

Our town is so rigidly ingrained with the Spam mindset one would think Austin’s city borders were rigidly rectangular with rounded corners. Furthermore, (as the Highway 35 billboard proudly states), with the new museum in town who needs the Guggenheim when we have the Guggenham?

All this is definitely true, but I’m thinking that things-they-are-a’changing! You see, Spam may have met its match. Perhaps the time has come for it to share the stage. Shift over a bit. You see, there’s a new game in town. We here in Austin are no longer known for only our porky products. We’ve morphed!

It is common knowledge that for decades Austin has been recognized for its brilliant music and drama productions, but in the last few years people have also noticed the blossoming of its art. Indeed, the move is becoming so apparent that I propose we combine our town’s two outstanding elements. Give ourselves a new name. You know, something with more zip, zing, pizzazzzz …

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Spam + art … Spart!

Spart-town U.S.A.? Why not? Spam slices served up on an oil canvas!

You may wonder just what has prompted my burst of excitement. Well, I’m speaking, of course, of next week’s Arts Festival. Now, folks, if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’ve been living a muffled life. Do not — I tell you — entertain even the slightest notion of going out of town on August 27th and 28th. Your place is right here!

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday prepare yourselves to be gobsmacked as you’ve never been gobsmacked before!! And all that gobsmacking is absolutely free!

Five years ago the Austin Art Festival was born. Who of you know that it was the brain child of Eric Anfinson? One day as he was daydreaming once again a vision that had been re-running in his head, he uttered it out loud. The ears of a receptive Bonnie Reitz overheard. Zoom! Her antennae streaked skyward. Within nanoseconds she was on board. Within hours she had captured the attention of another Austin fireball, the always eager Belita Schindler. Overnight the two formed a committee of five. The ball was rolling.

But, where to hold an event of magnitude, they lamented? That’s when their eyes drifted to Fourth Avenue. Why, of course! The long empty utilities building! What better place to hold a festive festival than in an old discarded turbine room? The scene for the artsy die was cast.

An astonishing five-thousand people attended the first Arts Festival. Twenty-two Austin artists displayed their work with not a single egg-carton-craft project in sight. To the right and left, artistic endeavors bedazzled the eyes of the visitors. The talent was, in a word, awesome.

Over the next five years, the festival improved — even though it didn’t need to. Next week you will see fifty-four juried artists from ten different states. If you want to get a jump on the game, I would suggest you bring your purse for what better place to do your early Christmas shopping? Where else, for goodness sakes, can you find a more heart-stopping, affordable, farraginous assortment of art? Just the thing to stupefy and delight your loved ones!

I will warn you, however, that as you stroll through the burgeoning talent-filled aisles of the turbine room, it’s a good bet your creative juices will start to itch … itch to a fever pitch. That is precisely when it’s time to crank up your Van and Gogh!

And wouldn’t you know, folks, there’s a place for that, too. It’s called the Family Activities Center. Located in the row of garages on Fourth Avenue, there you will find tables so laden with art supplies they are virtually groaning under the abundance. Its splendor will draw you in like a fly to a ham sandwich. And before you know it the gnawing latent artist in you will be released. All you have to do is plop yourself down and begin. No money needed. There is an age restriction, however: 3 to 103 years old!

On a very personal note I would like to give my own testimonial for how this event changed my life. I was invited to present my book “Potato in a Rice Bowl” at the very first festival. The people who organized and guided me through the process were so kind, so professional and so much fun they got me thinking in a very serious way about Austin and the people in it. Indeed, so serious that my husband and I moved back here two years later. Now that, friends, is the power of the Festival!

By now the tremendous success of the Art Festival had caused people to think about what else could be done to promote culture in our hometown. The next person whose inspiration bubbled over was Bruce Loeschen, a former AHS art teacher. Like Anfinson, one day Bruce divulged an idea that had for sometime been roiling around in his mind. It was Austin’s great luck to have his proposal fall on the receptive ears of the biggest mover and shaker of all times, Belita Schindler. Upon hearing his words, her neon blue eyes lit up with such an iridescent sapphire, they nearly blinded Bruce!

Whipping around, Belita then grabbed the arm of a local marketing expert, Gretchen Ramlo. The two were off to the races. They knew that with the astonishing attendance at the Art Festival, Austin had already demonstrated its blossoming capacity for art. So, what the city now needed, the girls decided, was not a once-a-year event, but rather a permanent Main Street art center. They were just the girls to make it happen.

For seven long and dusty years a hundred-plus year old bank building had been sitting empty across from the court house. When Belita and Gretchen looked at its lonely and neglected cobwebbed walls, they did not see a derelict limestone building. Au contraire! They saw a resplendent art center! Phones started ringing all over town as volunteers signed on to the project. Inside, the boulder and brick encased walls, wooden floors and curved windows were revived to within an inch of their century old lives, and Valspar very generously provided paint, encouraging the workers to be sure to take enough to get the job done right. With the sweat of these astonishing folks the structure was transformed into the Austin ArtWorks.

Additionally, clever thinkers and doers like the volunteer par excellence, Jim Burroughs, found massively heavy wooden used storage cabinets in an online ad. There were so many in the lot that he sold half of them for more than he paid for the whole bunch rendering them free for ArtWorks. But once wasn’t enough for Jim. He replicated that deed by also finding used butcher block work tables to furnish the clay cavern classroom and in so doing again sold the excess for profit. In other words, he outfitted much of the basement for nothing. Maybe Jim Burroughs should run for President!

ArtWorks is now two years old. If you have not yet treated yourself to a visit, what are you waiting for? Right here on our Main Street, my friend, you are in for an unexpected treat. I warn you, though, that the sight is overwhelming. Yes, the creativity of the ninety-two currently featured artists from all over the United States may well render you speechless.

What a fabulous place to take guests if you want to dazzle them with Austin’s wonders. Moreover, if you’re the kind of person who goes out of your way to give utterly distinctive gifts made by the hands of gifted artisans, then ArtWorks is your place. Trust me. You will not see a Made in China sticker anywhere! Prices range from a $.75 postcard to a $3700 hand-cut stone table. Sales this past June tripled over that of last year, a fact that speaks for the obvious quality of the merchandise.

In every respect, ArtWorks is, as well, a splendid new event venue. Next month my 60th AHS class reunion will hold its ladies luncheon on the second floor. There is even an elevator. Think about it. You, too, could hold your event there. Can’t you envision it …. your wedding reception, your anniversary — even your divorce! Celebrate the really big moments in your life while surrounded by art.

No question about it. The name “Austin” is so yesterday. “Spart” is sooo today!

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing maggiemamm16@gmail.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”