Watching oil painters set up a canvas for an en plein air painting, observing textile artists weave at their looms — these are some of the many engaging and intimate moments shared between artists and art lovers at the annual Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival.
Now celebrating its 30th year, more than 200 artists from across the United States will land in Reston, Virginia from Friday, September 10 to Sunday, September 12 for the festival organized by the recently renamed Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (previously Greater Reston Arts Center). Spread over 11 blocks of Reston Town Center, the festival blends into the larger shopping and restaurant destinations, extending Tephra ICA’s gallery footprint throughout the larger community.
“It really helps that we can now push our mission of being this fertile ground for creativity, and actually physically change the landscape at Reston Town Center by bringing these artists into that space,” Erica Harrison, associate curator and festival director shares, who has curated the festival for over a decade.
Each year, a highly selective panel invites independent creative entrepreneurs to submit a portfolio of their works, artistic statement, and model of how they will arrange mini-galleries in their booths. This year’s panel of jurors — including artist and curator Travis Childers, arts administrator Alissa Maru, and curator Tiffany Williams — looked through hundreds of portfolios to select this year’s roster of talented artists. The jurors will also rescore each booth to select 10 artists who will receive Awards of Excellence during the Saturday evening awards ceremony.
“These artists are at the top of their game as far as glass, resin painting or woodworking,” Harrison says.
The diversity of art forms and media is vast, but the quality of the art, she promises is always of the highest caliber.
“You’ll see a lot of really high-end, fine American crafts. There’s also some newer artists who are experimenting with textiles, or doing something slightly different with handcrafted leather work or large sculptures that might be great for outdoors.”
The artists — many of whom travel across the States for various arts festivals throughout the year — have a community among themselves. Harrison enjoys seeing artist friends carpooling together to bring their works to the festival, and the general sense of camaraderie and conviviality among the artists during the set-up on Thursday before the festival begins.
“They’re almost like emerging butterflies,” Harrison says. “Part of [the joy] is just coming together as a community to celebrate these artists who spend winter in their studios by themselves. They flourish with all their creativity, and bring it in to share.”
This year, many artists are returning after the cancelation of last year’s festival due to the pandemic.
“One of the hardest parts of Covid was losing in-person arts experiences, because I believe the arts are essential to connecting us with our humanity,” says board chair Robert Goudie. “To have the festival back, and to once again interact with over 200 of the best artists from around the country, is a breath of fresh air.”
“There were 90 or so artists juried into the 2020 festival who stayed with us,” Tephra ICA Executive Director and Curator Jaynelle Hazard says. “We were able to roll over their participation for this year, which meant a great deal to us.”
On “Festival Friday,” there will be an opening ceremony for Alexandria-based artist Sue Wrbican’s sculpture “Bouyant Force.” Offering an opportunity for audiences and artists to engage with this multimedia work, the 50-foot-tall steel sculpture was installed near the gallery in 2020.
“Buoyant Force’s” blue scaffolded structure is softened by metallic swirls of teal, brightened by squares of warmer oranges and reds, made less imposing by cheeky massive paperclips suspended midair. Wrbican’s work harkens back to the paintings of Kay Sage, the surrealist painter whose “Tomorrow is Never” (1955) depicts several scaffolds surrounding entwined fabrics blending into an eerie, foggy landscape.
At the same time, Wrbican’s piece is futuristic, collaborative and prophetic. Viewers can scan a QR code in their phones to converse with the sculpture, receiving related photographs, poems and other surprises, including predictions.
“We have an open call for women and female-identifying artists in the DMV to apply to make a prediction,” Wrbican explains. “There are going to be new predictions for when we do the celebration. We’ll be looking for what we think would be interesting for the sculpture. It can be serious, playful or fun. It depends on the material that we get.”
Dancer and choreographer Tariq Darrell O’Meally will celebrate and converse with Wrbican’s sculptural piece in a 20-minute dance performance entitled “The Last Plan******.” Conceptually connecting with “Buoyant Force,” O’Meally asks, “What does it mean to be a harbinger or witness to an event?”
The piece will be performed on the 20th anniversary of September 11, while also reflecting back on the events of the last 16 months.
“When we think about 9/11, from that moment on, there was no going back,” O’Meally explains. “The DNA of America changed: how we thought about ourselves, how we interacted with each other. It heightened the fear level up, and those ripples have brought us all the way to this contemporary moment we participated in but was also out of our control.”
He notes, too, “Life is made up of nothing but mundane moments that accumulate to something that is extraordinary,” and hopes to capture this in his performance.
The artists, performances and predictions will all lead to an extraordinary, art-filled, celebratory weekend in early September.
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