Artists mourn the 2020 Kentuck fest that never was

Annabelle Blomeley, Staff Reporter

The 49th Kentuck Festival of the Arts, which was scheduled to happen in Northport this October, was canceled amid fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival plays an important role in supporting Tuscaloosa and Northport artists and without it, the local art community struggles to get through the rest of the year.

After 48 years of live music, food, and incredible artists, the Kentuck Festival of the Arts was canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with being a significant portion of Kentuck Art Center’s revenues, the festival garnered tourism for the Tuscaloosa-Northport area and was a huge source of income for the over 200 artists who sell at the show.

Kerry Kennedy, a local artist who makes functional pottery out of her private studio named Fire Horse Pottery, has been a demonstrating artist for the Kentuck Art Center for 12 years. She has been attending the Kentuck Festival of the Arts since she was a girl.

“I went to that festival as a young person and that’s one of the reasons I became an artist,” Kennedy said. “Seeing all of that amazing talent and being able to be with the artists as they talked about their art is incredible.”

Kennedy recommends, when able to, visitors take multiple days to enjoy the festival. 

“It’s impossible to get through that festival in less than the whole day and really you should go back for the second day because you just want to be able to interact with them,” Kennedy said. “It’s just some of the best work. Kentuck is the top five in the country on some lists and it brings a lot of people who would not normally come to Tuscaloosa.”

Kennedy said artists and art organizations around the country are struggling to figure out ways to keep going while their income is dropping or disappearing entirely.

“Every day I mourn the people who have not made it through this,” Kennedy said. “Artists tend to be very sensitive people and I know a lot of us have really been dealt a blow in that way.”

Kennedy emphasized the point that Kentuck is a large source of income for local artists. 

“So, we get all of this studio time but it’s hard to go do something that requires a lot of emotion when you’re filled with anxiety or whatever,” Kennedy said. “For some people, [Kentuck] was going to make all of their money for the entire year, and then to have it snatched away, that’s terrifying.”

Despite the obstacles, Kennedy maintains a positive outlook. She hopes that when things return to normal, there will be a demand for the handmade art and products that people have been missing out on during the pandemic. 

Kentuck has been one of the largest and most visited art festivals in the state for decades. Garnering thousands of tourists per year, the two-day festival boasts hundreds of artist booths, a variety of food stands and trucks, multiple live performances, and hands-on activities for kids and adults alike. 

Courtesy of Sarah Bryant

Sarah Bryant, a professor specializing in letterpress printing and artist books in The University of Alabama’s MFA Book Arts  program, has attended the Kentuck Festival of the Arts with her students for several years now.

“Our students do a couple of different things at Kentuck,” Bryant said. “The first thing we do is we have a table in the kid’s area where we teach children simple bookmaking techniques … we also have booths where we sell the work of students, which is great because it helps them fund their projects.”

UA students produce various items throughout the semester to sell at Kentuck.

“They sell blank books, journals, boxes, prints, and all the things that they’re making help their skills, and then selling them at Kentuck makes money for their projects,” Bryant said. 

Bryant said that the University’s MFA Book Arts Program has had to make difficult changes to its curriculum, and she hopes the festival’s cancellation won’t monetarily impact her students too much.

“I think that it’s a big hit for Kentuck to be canceled because it generates so much income and awareness of the arts here in town,” Bryant said. “It’s easier to value the arts when you can interact with artists and see firsthand the work that they’re making.”

Bryant understands why the festival had to be canceled, though. 

“I think everyone right now is doing the best that they can to keep people safe and to move into modes that can still help celebrate the arts and the artists who are still working,” Bryant said. 

To support the artists who were supposed to be at the festival, the Kentuck Art Center is hosting a virtual Kentuck Festival Marketplace with all of the art available for purchase. The Marketplace goes live on Oct. 10 and will  include digital artist demonstrations.

Scott McQueen, a studio folk artist for the Kentuck Art Center, started doing his acrylic and mixed media art full-time when he left his ministry job after 31 years. Now, McQueen sells his art online in his Kentuck studio and at 27 art shows he travels to year-round.

“When COVID hit, it just put everything in reverse,” McQueen said. “I do a lot of art shows and suddenly all of these art shows started shutting down. And as they were canceling, I was just looking at my income go out the window.”

Courtesy of Scott McQueen

McQueen says that a large portion of his income comes from art shows, and he’s looking for ways to broaden his exposure. 

“I was making probably around 85 to 90 percent of my income from all of these art shows – that’s been really devastating not only to myself but to all artists and a lot of small businesses who rely on putting their wares in front of other people,” McQueen said. 

McQueen also emphasized that there are many ways for students to support the local art community without spending hundreds of dollars on art. McQueen said that going to galleries, shows, demonstrations, festivals and interacting with local artists on social media can be just as important when supporting the arts.

“You can always find artists that you appreciate,” McQueen said. “Even if you can’t afford their art, you can appreciate their art … For artists, it’s all about exposure. Nobody knows about you unless they see your work and understand what you’re about. That’s the number one way college students can support local artists – by sharing artists that they love with their own broader network.”

Despite having a rough year, the local art community is trying its best to stay afloat in these unprecedented times. From working on their Etsy shops to getting generous donations from buyers across the country, local artists are determined to make the most of their situation.

“Through all this, I’m still blessed, I’m still breathing, and I’m still making my art,” McQueen said.