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North Charleston Arts Fest returns after year off with half a budget, fewer events

After a year hiatus due to COVID-19, the 38th annual rendition of a multidisciplinary arts festival in the Lowcountry is returning this week. 

The North Charleston Arts Fest is back with a series of events spanning visual arts, theater, music, dance, magic and literature at a variety of locations from April 28 to May 2. 

Some events will be held virtually or outdoors, while a couple of the festival's traditional large gatherings — the World Arts Expo at North Charleston Riverfront Park and Children's Festival in Park Circle —  have been canceled this year. 

Preregistration is required for certain events to ensure capacity isn't exceeded, and all festivalgoers are being asked to wear a face covering and practice social distancing. 

"If you take a look at this year’s festival schedule, it’s quite obvious that it’s not as robust as it usually is," said the city of North Charleston's Cultural Arts Department Director Ann Simmons. "We’re working with about half of our normal budget and also decided to keep things small since we are still in the midst of a global pandemic."

This year's budget to work with was around $150,000, Simmons said. Most events are free. 

The fest's visual art exhibitions will remain intact, including displays for outdoor sculptures, youth art and African American fiber art. 

"It’s fairly easy to socially distance while viewing artwork," Simmons said.

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"Oak Circus" by Christine Bush Roman was selected as the poster art for the North Charleston Arts Fest. Provided

This year's poster designer Christine Bush Roman will also have an exhibition at Park Circle Gallery. Roman's works have touched on motherhood, mental illness and neurosensitivity. She was selected out of 75 entrants from 17 South Carolina cities as the featured artist for the 2020 event, which was postponed shortly after that announcement. 

On the bright side, Roman said she had an extra year to refocus and edit some of her art. 

"I think my work is much more interesting than it was a year ago," she said. 

Her selected piece, "Oak Circus," illustrates the "vibrancy and emotion of all kinds of creators coming together to share their work," said Roman. The oak tree featured within the abstract painting is a symbol of the Lowcountry but also growth, transformation and unity. 

Roman appreciates the family-friendly aspect of the festival that allows area children to explore and examine artwork. 

"Kids are my favorite critics," Roman said. "My favorite sale I ever made was in the past year to a kid who used his savings to buy one of my paintings. I will always remember him."

Roman's artwork is childlike in many ways. Her exhibited art this year was inspired by the phrase "loose parts," referring to youthful play materials with no explicit rules or instructions.

"These loose parts can be combined, restructured, taken apart and put back together in multiple ways," she said. "Similarly, artists are continually tinkering with and reorganizing inspirations to create art."

Returning sculpture artist Beau Lyday, like Roman, took the year hiatus as time to adapt his work to better reflect the current times. 

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"Give Me Shelter" by Beau Lyday. Provided

His outdoor installation, "Give Me Shelter," plays on the fact that much of the world had to shelter in place during the pandemic. Not much of a "people person" himself, Lyday said he took the forced solitary time to recognize the power of safety in shelter and comfort in self. He wanted to create a representation of a protective space during uncertain times. 

His sculpture incorporates pieces of rusted tin roofing formed and fitted together over a wooden frame. The result is a piece that looks to be made of solid cast iron. It looks like architectural framework that could be found in a chapel or church sanctuary. 

In the African American Fiber Art Exhibition, one concept reigns this year: Sankofa.

It's a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that translates to "retrieve" or "go back and get it." 

For curator Cookie Washington, that means honoring her ancestors while still moving forward in a positive way. During a year of loss, the concept is fitting. 

Washington has had a difficult year. Her mother had a stroke and was placed in assisted living, her veteran brother lost his leg to a rare cancer and the financial upheaval has been devastating to Washington and many artists alike. 

"This has been the most difficult year of my life," Washington said. "My only solace has been the ability to go into my studio and create."

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"My Ancestors Acres Stolen; Seeking Return" by Cookie Washington. Provided

Her star quilts are tributes to her grandparents, and one in particular addresses her ancestors' personal land loss, something faced by many Black farmers in the South whose land was acquired by White people. 

It's called "My Ancestors Acres Stolen; Seeking Return." 

"Learning about African American art is something that is long overdue in our country," Washington added. 

She will be providing small tours of the exhibition, which includes works on all three floors of North Charleston City Hall by almost 50 different fiber artists. 

Renee Fleuranges-Valdes, who first met Washington at Spoleto in 2012, is one. 

Fleuranges-Valdes, who knits, crochets, needlepoints and quilts, is originally from New York, moved to North Carolina for a stint and now resides in North Charleston.

"This sense of artist community was one of the reasons we moved to the area, but by the time we got settled, COVID-19 shut everything down," Fleuranges-Valdes recalled. 

This will be her first festival as a local Lowcountry artist. She's showcasing her quilt "Dream ~ Achieve ~ Inspire." 

"My piece symbolizes the message of Sankofa: Dream big and work hard to achieve all you can, but remember to go back and share those pearls of wisdom with your village and show them the way forward," she said. 

North Charleston Arts Fest Dream Achieve INspire Renee Fleuranges Valdes.jpeg

"Dream ~ Achieve ~ Inspire" by Renee Fleuranges-Valdes. Provided

As Washington shared, these aren't just quilts to throw on your bed or couch but ones to display as a piece of artwork on your wall, in a place of honor. She hopes attendees will see the value of what she and her fellow fiber artists have created; she also hopes people will come ready to support the hands behind the quilts. 

"We’re all broke as heck," Washington said. "I’m doing that taking your medicine every other day because you haven’t sold anything because you haven’t been able to show anything. This show is super important." 

The five-day event will feature 271 creatives in wine bars, chapels, pubs and parks who are pursuing their passions despite this year's social and financial challenges. They're relying on the community to help them keep putting art out into the world. 

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Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts & entertainment and food & bev for The Post and Courier. She's a music festival & concert photographer and used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper, among other publications.