Painting a Scene: Austin ArtWorks Festival to feature new activities, artists

Published 4:01 pm Saturday, August 17, 2019

The streets of downtown Austin are going to explode with color and creativity next weekend.

For the last eight years, the Austin ArtWorks Festival has brought communities and artists together for a two-day event that celebrates the arts and all those who create them.

So far this year, there are 57 exhibiting artists, nine demonstrating artists, 67 musicians, 12 authors, which total 145 artists who are participating and acting as vendors, according to Laura Helle, executive director of Austin Area Arts.

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“We have definitely grown from where the festival was in the beginning,” Helle said. “We’re happy with the size of the festival. It’s just the right size.”

Last year, the Austin ArtWorks Festival experienced its busiest and most successful year to date, with more than 9,000 visitors coming to Austin. Helle hoped that this year would top the previous year in regards to guest count as well as patrons supporting local artists and businesses.

“We would love to see those numbers even higher this year,” Helle added.

Most likely what contributed to the growth of the guests coming to the Austin ArtWorks Festival would be the location change, Helle noted. Now that the festival is held outdoors in downtown Austin, as opposed to the Austin Municipal Plant, the festivities have become even more accessible to a wider audience.

“We have more involvement of downtown businesses, and we have a collaboration with Sweet Reads for the authors stage,” Helle said. “At the power plant, it was always an issue. It was always hard to find a space to hear authors speak. Sweet Reads is the right venue for that. The Spam Museum with its plaza outside of the building is utilized. The traffic generates so much more business downtown. It’s great to have that be brought back to the community’s economy.”

Whalen and Willows perform in the alley behind Dusty’s during the Austin ArtWorks Festival last year. Eric Johnson/

Approaching the eighth year that the Austin ArtWorks Festival takes place in the city, those who spearheaded the organization from its earliest beginnings were proud to see how far their efforts have gone. Bonnie Rietz, co-chair for the festival, reminisced about how much the support for the arts in town has grown.

“There is an excitement in the air that you just didn’t feel eight years ago,” Rietz said. “Now it’s on most people’s calendars and they look forward to it. Kyle from the Coffee House (on Main) tells us that it was the busiest weekend he had last year.”

The festival also received immense financial backing from local businesses and individuals. Rietz acknowledged Paul and Joann Worlein, who were the Purchase Award Donors, individuals who give $5,000 to the festival and one work of art chosen by them will be put in a public place in town.

“We could not do our Austin ArtWorks Festival without the many generous people who support it,” she added.

There’s a lot that was added to the lineup for this year’s Austin ArtWorks Festival, according to Rietz. With new music performances, new artists and authors, as well as increased activity in the Family Art Tent, there’s something for everyone.

What Rietz considered to be one of the changes that the festival experienced was the week leading up to the festival. Having started Friday with the Matchbox Children’s Theatre, the community can see unique events each day until it ends with the Alley Party behind Dusty’s at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23.

“Come and sing along with Bret Hesla, an Austin native, on Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Veterans Pavilion where our own Miguel Garate join him in leading a Community Sing,” she said. “Wednesday evening will be a memorial concert for Blair Lawhead and Bobbie Z, drummer for Prince, will be performing addition to a talented array of local musicians.”

This year, the Paramount Theatre Annex will host Bill Taufic, who will showcase a special exhibit of portraits and stories of individuals that he featured in his project ‘Our Austin, Our America,’ to celebrate the ethnic diversity in town. Also performing at the Paramount is Max Weinberg, longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen and bandleader for Conan O’Brien.

Another aspect that’s considered to be new to this year’s festival is the public-sourced art project, where visitors can be a part of creating a masterpiece with yarn for the String Box Shanty, along with glass blowing, entertainment from the Pallet Players and opportunities to create pinatas.

“There’s going to be a metal structure with eyelet holes,” Helle described. “People will use yarn to create a weaving, and eventually, more yarn will be added onto it. It’s one of the activities that’s new this year and is a public sourced project.”

This particular project also ties in another new business that will be hosting a soft opening at the Austin ArtWorks Festival called the Yarn Mobile. A mother-daughter duo plans to open a traveling truck to various spots in Austin and offer classes in knitting, similar to a function of a food truck. Those who visit the festival may be able to snag a knitting demonstration during the festival.

“I love to walk around the festival grounds and see people from Austin and visitors from out of town gathering together to enjoy the musicians, authors and artists who are from Austin and out of town,” Rietz said. “It’s a wonderful blend of celebrating our incredible local talent and bringing in unique artists from other communities.”

Another sign of progress and change for the festival was the inclusion of more diverse artists from underrepresented populations, Helle said, with the incorporation of featured artist Rory Wakemup, a Native American artist from the Anishinabe tribe, who will be showcasing his pieces at  the Austin ArtWorks Center.

“I’m proud of our growing diversity,” she said. “This year, the featured artist and one of the authors are both Native American. It really takes some conscious effort to bring in artists of color who may not have many opportunities to be seen. Our audiences have become more diverse. I see that as maybe our biggest achievement, and that the arts have unique opportunities to bridge across differences, and using the arts to leverage that.”

Rain or shine, the Austin ArtWorks Festival will have something for everyone.

“There’s a lot of the festival that’s outdoors, but also a lot indoors,” Helle said. “Don’t let the weather scare you off. Rain or shine, we’re offering a lot of things to do and see. It’s something that everyone can get excited about.”