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VOL. 128 | NO. 207 | Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rich Tapestry

RiverArtsFest brings broad spectrum of works to South Main

By Stacey Wiedower

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Bonnie Thornton has a mission at this year’s RiverArtsFest that goes beyond her role as director of the festival’s Artist Market: she’s helping a fledgling art collector get his start.

The seventh RiverArtsFest will be held this weekend in the South Main Historic Arts District. The event coincides with the monthly South Main Art Trolley Tour.


“My son, who lives in D.C., had a friend on the phone asking me if I would buy him a piece of art,” said Thornton, who’s served in her volunteer role with RiverArtsFest for five years. “He has $100 and asked if I would buy a piece of art for him. He’s 23 years old and ready to start collecting. It’s really exciting to me – I’m pumped up.”

In her role, Thornton recruits and helps select the 180-plus fine artists whose work will be displayed at this year’s event, which is in its seventh year on South Main Street. RiverArtsFest 2013 kicks off Friday, Oct. 25, at 6 p.m., coinciding with this month’s South Main Art Trolley Tour. Festival hours are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free on Friday night and $5 per person Saturday and Sunday. Children 10 and under are free all three days of the event, which is presented by Raymond James.

“It’s going to be a beautiful, fun outdoor festival,” Thornton said. “We have artists from all over the country. They’re juried artists – they have to apply to get in. We focus on fine arts and contemporary crafts. There’s a broad spectrum, from glass to metalsmithing to jewelry to paint and mixed media to ceramics and sculpture.”

Price points are “all over the place,” she added, and along with acquiring art, patrons get the benefit of meeting the artists.

“Not only are you buying a piece of art, but you’re getting the story with it,” Thornton said. “Because you’re buying directly from the artist, you get to interact with that artist and find out about the process and where it came from.”

Obayana Ajanaku, a metal artist and jeweler from Decatur, Ga., returns to Memphis for RiverArtsFest year after year in part because of nostalgia, he said.

“My first show ever was at the Memphis Metal Museum, really before it opened – one of its first shows,” Ajanaku said. “I used to live in Memphis and I love the festival. The people who run the show are really open to new ideas.”

One of those ideas that has come to fruition is a visiting artists’ program that involves participants and area school children. This year, Ajanaku is visiting a Whitehaven school to demonstrate his art.

RiverArtsFest is especially welcoming for children.


“That’s one of the reasons I come,” he said. “We all come to make money, but that’s just part of it. The community involvement and the joy you get from actually turning kids onto something they may not have thought about getting into – that really helps. A lot of them don’t realize you can make a living with something you love and have a passion for.”

Along with the art on display in the Artist Market, RiverArtsFest 2013 includes three musical stages with known regional acts; food and beverage vendors, including food trucks; “Hands on Art,” a station for festival-goers to create artwork; and special exhibits in South Main galleries and shops.

Local artist Annabelle Meacham created the art for this year’s festival poster, which is available for sale at the Art Center on Union Avenue and at the festival.

Sharon Spillar, a large-format abstract painter from St. Louis, loves the diversity of the festival and its location in Downtown.

“I’m really excited about the work, but I’m also excited about breakfast at The Arcade every day and Gus’s Fried Chicken on Saturday night,” she said with a laugh. “It’s an extremely well-run festival, and they consider artists first.”

Thornton said she and her team of volunteers put out the call to artists in February. In the ensuing months, a jury scored the submitted slides and selected participants to invite to exhibit. She added that most of the festival’s organizers are volunteers.

“What I love most about RiverArtsFest is that we’ve been able to do this great thing for Memphis with volunteers,” said Thornton, a retired nurse. “We have a paid event coordinator, but it’s run by volunteers, and everybody on this board has a passion for it. It really is amazing that we can pull it off.”

Along with her mission to find a piece of art for her son’s friend, Thornton’s other call to action is simply to get Memphians Downtown for the event.

“We really need people to get down there,” she said. “There’s still this mindset that exists in some areas that Downtown is not a place to go, and I love how much fun and how many cool things are going on Downtown. I’m amazed by the progress we’ve made over the years.”

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