October 2011

Bluff Arts Fest focuses on storytelling

Southwest author Craig Childs will be among the gathering's notables

By Connie Gotsch

EILEEN FJERSTAD OF SOUTHWEST COLORADO, WHOSE WORK INCLUDES THIS LANDSCAPE, WILL OFFER A WORKSHOP CALLED "PAINTING THE LANDSCAPE OIL EN PLEIN AIRE" AS PART OF THE BLUFF ARTS FESTEIVAL OCT. 21-23.Every year, on a chilly January day, somebody wandering into the Bluff, Utah, post office will find a sign-up sheet. Planning has already begun for Bluff Arts Festival, an annual autumn event that spreads across town, draws between 200 and 300 visitors, and fills area motels.

“We want to encourage arts in the community,” says Tina Krutsky, co-director of this year’s festival, which takes place Oct. 21-23. “We want to support not just artists in town, but artists from the surrounding communities, including the Ute and the Navajo.”

The 2011 festival features a variety of prominent writers and artists, including authors Craig Childs (“House of Rain”) and Kate Niles (“The Basket Maker,” “The Book of John”). There will be workshops, storytelling sessions, and art walks.

Organizing the annual festival in the tiny, scenic town takes months and months of planning.

Soon after the sign-up sheet fills, the Arts Festival Committee convenes. It selects a theme for the weekend, this year’s being “Storytelling Through the Arts.” A call goes out for a featured artist. A graphic designer develops a festival brochure. Someone begins overseeing the website. Other volunteers find artists to lead workshops for adults or kids who want to try their hand at anything from drawing to dancing and weaving.

A prospectus goes out to locals who would like their studios to be on the Trail of Artists art walk each afternoon of the festival, so visitors can meander in and see their work. Inns and local businesses join the Trail of Artists.

Artists from around the region receive invitations to participate in the Saturday Arts Fair at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission outside of town.

The Friday Night Film Festival and the Saturday Night Gala take shape. The grant writers get busy. Rocky Mountain Power, local businesses, the Utah Arts Council, San Juan County Economic Development, and the Utah Humanities Council support the Bluff Arts Festival. Artists pay nothing for booths at the Arts Fair, and most workshops are free to the public, though occasionally participants pay a materials fee.

“We really try to make [the festival] accessible for artists and the community,” says Krutsky.

By the time programs, workshops and art events fall into place, the July sun heats the red rocks that surround Bluff. The detailed planning begins. Workshop leaders need housing. Someone must find volunteers to do everything from greeting artists, to setting up booths, to collecting trash.

“I realized we need more [people] than we had last year,” Krutsky laughs. “Live and learn.”

She got involved in the Bluff Arts Festival when she moved into town and wanted to be useful and make friends. She has done both, and met artists whom she would have met no other way. “Identifying people’s strengths and building on them, if you can make it happen, is very satisfying,” she says.

The Bluff Arts Festival has been going for seven years. A former vicar at St. Christopher’s Mission started the festival, focusing on writing and dance. The event grew to include other performing and visual arts. The film festival is the newest addition.

The present mission vicar, Red Stevens, and his partner, Willie Hulce, coordinate the arts fair. The open-ended event has no jurying process. Artists in all media and of all backgrounds can participate. So far, this year’s group includes silversmiths, weavers, sculptures, jewelers, pictorial artists, and gourd artists.

As well, workshops offer visitors a chance to experiment with a variety of media. “Bluffoon” (as locals call themselves) Kyle Bauman will show people how to make willow weavings, and encourage them to weave stories as they work.

Bluff jewelry artist Amanda Bouchard will encourage everyone aged 4 and up to make bead pins, necklaces, or bracelets to decorate their laughing spirits. Archaeologist Ben Bellorado will lead a hike to show how native people used rock art to tell stories.

Local oil painter Eileen Fjerstad will offer “Painting the Landscape Oil en Plein Aire.” She will also participate in the Trail of Artists. Writer Niles of Durango, Colo., will encourage participants in her workshop to use the extraordinary setting around Bluff as inspiration. Participants in Niles’ class can draw further ideas from the Ute and Navajo cultures, and archaeological sites. “I look out my window at the red rocks,” says Krutsky. “All I have to do is walk around a little and I find petroglyphs and pictographs practically in my own backyard.”

Bluff Arts Festival evening events also center on storytelling. Thursday night, Bluff Yarn Spinners will tell Stories in the Dark, followed by fireworks. Friday night, local film-makers, including school children, will present their perspectives on the Bluff community in the Second Film Festival.

“Saturday night’s desert potluck and silent art auction is my favorite event of the weekend,” says Krutsky.

Dancer Amy Becenti, who grew up in Bluff, will perform her Diné Cabaret Belly Dance, which she describes as Warrior Humming Bird telling the story of life, and how to live it joyously and fearlessly in the service of nature’s bounty,

Diné composer Juanito Becenti will perform, and nationally known Colorado writer Childs, whose most recent book is “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession,” will discuss the natural sciences, journeys into the wilderness, and archaeology.

“It’s going to be one big party,” chuckles Krutsky.

When the Bluff Arts Festival is over, the festival committee will write up grant reports, take a couple of months off and start work on the 2012 event.

Krutsky isn’t sure she’ll continue as co-director. “There’s a lot going on in Bluff. Nobody on this year’s committee was involved two years ago.”

But she is considering taking a piece of the work to do. “We really need a grant writer,” she muses.