Community Support Helps Sugar Creek Arts Festival Thrive

Reprinted with permission of The Pantagraph

By Kelsey Watznauer; Photos by Lewis Marien

NORMAL — The streets of uptown Normal were packed Saturday, July 13, 2019, as artists and art lovers endured the summer heat for the annual Sugar Creek Arts Festival.

“Right now we’re considered to be one of the best festivals in the United States and that’s really due to the quality of the artists and the community support,” said Doug Johnson, director of the McLean County Arts Center.

About 130 artists arrived in uptown Normal to showcase their art, hoping to pull in potential customers. The festival continued Sunday in uptown Normal.

Several of the artists echoed Johnson, crediting the community support with their incentive to return year after year.

Mary Ann Holmes of Kansas City, Mo., right, talks about her work during the Sugar Creek Arts Festival on Saturday, July 13, 2019, in uptown Normal.

“We have a show in Madison, Wis., the same weekend, but we chose to come back here instead because it’s just more of a community show,” said Mary Ann Holmes, who traveled here from the Kansas City area.

She and her husband create mixed media works under the name M. Robinson Artworks. Their colorful pieces are made from modeling paste and textured using household items like a meat tenderizer or the tires of their child’s toy tractor.

After a few more layers and processes, the Holmeses finish their pieces with epoxy, giving them a glass-like sheen.

Su Ge of Bloomington talks about her work during the Sugar Creek Arts Festival on Saturday, July 13, 2019, in uptown Normal.

Su Ge, a local artist who teaches Chinese brush painting at Heartland Community College, brought several examples of her “serious hobby” that she spends more time on since retiring from State Farm last year.

“I love what I’m doing and I want to share what I know,” she said. “I want to let more people know Asian art … It’s also a good place to meet people, to share the culture.”

Taking advantage of storm damage, Steven Martin harvests wood from downed trees on his farm in Carterville, then makes small boxes that mimic dressers or cupboards.

Whether they’re made from walnut, cherry, cedar or sassafras, each piece has secret compartments with tricks for opening them.

“I like the way the community really supports this when we come out,” he said. “That’s kind of unusual nowadays to have a community event … They seem to be excited about this, which is a good thing.”

About 20,000 people were expected to make their way through the festival throughout the weekend, averaging 1,000 per hour, Johnson said.

“We’ve made a real effort to keep the footprint of the festival small enough that we can maintain both that quality and ensure that the artists have good sales,” he said. “We have a very art-educated community where people have a sophisticated eye when they’re looking at work and know quality.”

Cheryle Turner traveled from Champaign and was pleased to see the variety of artists, entertainment and food available.

“It’s my first time here, but my friend has been here before and there are a couple artists here that she likes to visit,” she said. “So we’re really seeking out a particular artist and then visiting others.”

As high temperatures soared to the low 90s, Mike Arendell and his daughter, Alice, 2, of Normal, cool off in the water of the Uptown Circle roundabout Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Mike Arendell and 2-year-old Alice of Normal waded through the roundabout water feature, “just trying to stay cool” in the mid-90s heat index.

Alice’s mom, Tera Arendell, stood in a shady area to watch and didn’t seem to mind when her daughter sat down in the water, dress and all.

The Arendells usually make it a point to visit the festival every year.

“We have one sculptor we like to see every year and I just kind of like to look at the paintings and see what people are doing,” said Tera Arendell.

Amberlin Cummings and Collin Beal of El Paso were drawn to abstract art.

“I’ve known of felt art but I didn’t know it could be that, really just be that cool and interesting,” Cummings said about the work of Julie Dancs, who traveled from Georgia for the festival.

“We’re both artists so we were really interested in looking at the art,” Beal said, recalling a few sculptors and mixed media artists who caught their eye.

Illinois Prairie Community Foundation awarded a 2019 Mirza/Arts & Culture Grant to the McLean County Arts Center for the Sugar Creek Arts Festival.

If you would like to help fund more programs like this in the community, donate online to IPCF’s Arts & Culture Endowment Fund which helps fund the Arts & Culture Grants.

Top Photo Caption: Leah Marlene performs at the Roundabout Stage during the Sugar Creek Arts Festival on Saturday, July 13, 2019, in uptown Normal. Marlene will perform at the stage again at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.