By Jenna Spinelle
The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts began in 1967, and, over the past 45 years, has grown from a small gathering on Penn State’s campus to a juried event with a sprawling sea of tents encompassing campus and downtown State College.
Though the festival now brings painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, and more from around the country to the Centre Region, local artists remain a vibrant part of the vendor community and serve as ambassadors to their out-of-town counterparts. And, at the end of each day, they return home to their own beds — a welcome reprieve for many who spend much of their time on the road at other festivals.
The transition from Arts Festival patron to vendor can be stressful, but the local artists profiled here say they are proud to be part of the community and to showcase their talents in their own backyards.
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Karyn Debrasky grew up attending Arts Festival with her mother, and fellow artist, Sandi Garris. She’s presented on her own at the festival since 2003, making Debrasky and Garris the only mother-daughter artists in the show according to festival director Rick Bryant.
Debrasky began her own artistic ventures selling jewelry with a friend at the festival’s Children’s Day, where she received an early taste of what life as an artist could be like.
“I guess I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and it’s a great opportunity for kids” she says. “The creative process of making jewelry was fun and it was great interacting with customers who bought our work at such a young age. That helped me want to continue pursuing something like that when I got older.”
Debrasky had a passion for creating her own art, but she struggled to hone in on a medium that fit her best. She earned a degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and worked in graphic design at Penn State and at a Pittsburgh advertising agency before deciding in 2004 that it was time to start her own business.
Initially, she wanted to get as far away from her print-advertising background as possible, so she tried her hand at stained glass and metal art, which she did for about four years before realizing paper truly was her passion. She now designs and sells custom greeting cards and fine-art pieces.
She frequently traveled with her mother to art shows and festivals around the country, which she says made her feel more comfortable when it was time to start traveling herself.
Though she’s now well established on her own, she still debriefs with her mother during the festival and appreciates having the support from someone who cares about her and has gone through many of the same experiences. Last year, each took home an Award of Excellence at the festival.
“We compare notes on a lot of things, like sales and how the day is going. … It’s helpful to have someone else know what you’re going through,” Debrasky says. “Being able to talk about it is helpful and it’s nice to have a support system.”
She’s also gotten to know other artists who visit the festival regularly, and they’ve built a support network to look out for each other on the show circuit — manning booths and keeping an eye on the weather.
Garris, a quiltmaker and fiber artist, has participated in the festival for about 25 years and had her start at the Village Crafts co-op and apprenticing with an Amish master quilter through a program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. She says quality of the work presented at the festival has increased exponentially since she first presented in the late 1980s.
“When the show first started, everyone had eight-foot tables and sold macramé,” Garris says with a laugh. “The quality of the work has gone way up, and the directors have encouraged everyone to keep the quality up because it keeps the buyers coming.”
Debrasky and Garris may one day be joined by a third-generation artist — Debrasky is expecting her first child, a girl, shortly after the end of this year’s festival. This year, perhaps more than any other, she’s thankful to have her mother at a booth just down the street.
“My child will probably grow up doing the same thing,” she says. “I’m happy to have everyone there to help me, and hopefully we’ll make it through the heat.”
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Spring Mills artist Diane Maurer is another 25-year veteran of the festival. In that time, she has seen the growth of the event.
“The festival has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best fine-art and fine-craft shows in the US,” she says. “Many people who come to the show are not only interested in seeing artists’ work, but knowing about the art and how it is made.”
Maurer is an internationally known paper artist whose work has been displayed in China, Turkey, and across the US. She’s been commissioned by companies, including Godiva Chocolates and Harper-Collins Publications.
She’s had the same booth space for most of her time at the festival and looks forward to seeing regular customers each year. The exposure from the show also has led to national-media exposure in Country Living magazine and the chance to display her work at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.
Though she’s traveled to festivals around the world, she’s not found another with the dedicated volunteers and staff that she sees year in and year out in State College. She recalls a thunderstorm knocking her booth over in the middle of the night during one of her early years at the festival and feeling relieved to see volunteers protecting its contents as she rushed to the scene.
“I found several volunteers had been roused from their beds to hold tarps over my display screens to save them from the rain and wind until I could arrive,” she says.
She says she appreciates the opportunity to interact with and draw inspiration from other artists at the festival in what she describes as a fun but lucrative atmosphere.
“Like many artists who have no other day job, I work in solitude in my studio most of the time,” she says. “Being at the festival gives me a chance to interact with people, who come to purchase my work, and also share camaraderie with the other artists around me.”
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Glassmaker Kimberly Brooks Filkins also took a little time to find her perfect medium and come into her own as an independent artist. She grew up in State College and dabbled in mosaics and other art forms before buying her first kiln at age 40.
“As I grew as an individual, I gained a perspective that led me to realize that I wanted to make art more a part of my life, and found the simplicity, beauty, and functionality of glass as my canvas,” she writes in her artist statement.
Filkins initially gave her pieces away, but eventually decided to apply for a spot at the festival after receiving encouragement from friends and family who visited her during Arts Festival weekend.
“I’ve always been interested in the Arts Festival being local. I thought it would be a dream come true to be part of it,” she says.
Filkins, who has no formal art training, says she was very nervous about submitting her slides for review for her first festival. She faced the typical jitters that her submission would not be accepted, that she would run out of products to sell, and that her work would not go over with the festival’s patrons.
Those fears quickly turned to excitement after a successful first year as she built a customer base and quickly connected with other artists. She now invites traveling artists to stay at her home and share meals with her family during the festival.
“We’re just one big happy art family during the show,” she says. “Meeting the other artists is so much fun and just hanging out with them … some of them do up to 24 shows per year and I do four, so there’s really a lot I can learn from them.”
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The festival also has been a networking opportunity for furniture craftsman Bill Seay of Spring Mills. Like Filkins, he attended as a patron long before making the jump to vendor in 2007.
“I had gotten to the point where I was good enough that I felt like I could compete, and I had built up enough stock that I finally thought I would be brave enough to try it out,” he says.
Seay designs handcrafted furniture in cherry, maple, mahogany, and walnut in a small one-person shop. Prior to starting at the festival, he received much of his business from single orders placed through word of mouth. The festival is now Seay’s largest source of income — up to two-thirds in some years — both from pieces sold on the spot and orders placed for custom items to be delivered after the event. The exposure also has helped him connect with the arts community in Centre County and expand to the Winter Craft Market in State College.
As a furnituremaker, it’s often difficult for him to move his wares from one festival to another, so he appreciates having one close to home to save the hassle of loading a trailer and paying gas and expenses to haul it.
“I don’t necessarily judge the festival by how much I sell during the four days,” he says. “I really have to look over the entire year because of orders I get at the show and contacts that I make who place follow-up orders throughout the year.”
He also takes mobility into consideration when selecting which pieces to bring to his booth.
“What I try and do is bring certain items that are considered my bread and butter, things that people come back for every year,” he says. “I also try to bring a few new large items each year. This year I’ll have four new pieces that haven’t been out there before.”
Seay has enjoyed seeing the festival from a different angle, looking at what goes on “behind the booths” and listening in on the conversations that happen between the other artists.
“In talking to other people, this is one of their favorite festivals because it’s very secure and it’s a really friendly environment,” he says. “State College is just a really nice place to be, and I think people realize that as they travel around to other shows.”
Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer in State College. She works in Penn State’s Undergraduate Admissions Office and is an adjunct lecturer in the College of Communications.