The 12th Annual Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts

Indeed, it was the 12th Annual Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts this weekend.  It’s a blowout affair in mid-town Buffalo, the Elmwood village area.  Every year the Nachmu family treks down there from our fortress in Tonawanda, mainly so that the Nachmu Boys may participate in the Buffalo Suzuki Strings concert, but also so that we might expose ourselves to the freaks, weirdos, and ne’er-do-wells who pretend to be haute couture.  It’s fun.As with every Arts Festival, the Elmwood Avenue Festival is long on contrivance and short on arts.  That’s not to say that the contrived isn’t good; in fact, it’s spectacular.  That is to say, however, that the arts community in Western New York isn’t particularly idiosyncratic.  This is Nachmu at his most arrogant, I admit; a most severe critic, indeed, but a weary consumer of the arts.

This is just the Kidsfest area.

Nevertheless, I feel that of the 170 or so vendors, a dozen or so did distinguish themselves.  In addition, the organizers of the festival have succeeded in creating an environment that borders on avant garde, but remains within the comfort zone of the intellectually curious family. In addition, they have balanced the displays, activities, music, and performances to give the festival a feel of constant motion and excitement without a sense that one is missing something.  In short, the place was packed until after closing time on Sunday. I honestly don’t know how they emptied the place of patrons and party-seekers.

What follows is my limited perspective on the festival, highlighting what I liked and the one piece I did buy.


Nachmu and Nachmu the Younger working on some enjoyable activity or another.

Every year the Lexington Co-op hosts Kidsfest, a collection of hands-on art concepts for pre-K and elementary age children and a performance tent.  We generally spend about two hours there, in part for the aforementioned performance, in part because there’s so much to do.  What else can I say? Here’s a short video to that effect:


J.C. Sterling

As I mentioned above, I’m generally disappointed by what passes for art at the Festival of the Arts.  Most of it is sophomoric, marked by some technical skills in a particular medium, but completely lacking in expressiveness, insight, artistic ability, or anything that might mark a piece as fine art.  I’m amazed by the inability of marketing visual artists to use color effectively.  Even though it was somewhat cloudy, the sky was not overcast, yet I saw very few pieces which could be said to be colorful, not even in a natural light setting.  What would they look like on display at home or in the office?  The palette was limited and used to produce a sense of mucky gray.  Contrast was not used, except in a tired, thematic way, with that ancient employment of ironic juxtaposition.  So 90s.

Is there no class in self-criticism in college anymore?  What is your communicative goal? What effect are you trying to achieve? Post-modern principles, my friends, do not excuse the artist from effort.  The interpreter needs something, anything, which to interpret.  Clouds are more meaningful than were all but a handful of the visual arts at the Festival.

I’m particularly disappointed in the woodworkers, especially the cabinetmakers (turners are an odd group, by my estimation, and they are wholly exempt from my critique).  One stands out: J.C. Sterling.  Here we live in one of the most famed regions in all the northern hemisphere for its unique hardwood varieties within the species of black walnut, cherry, and maple.  Moreover, Western New York is the home of Roycroft; Buffalo had its cultural heyday during the Arts and Crafts movement.  Thus, our wood artisans and wood craftsmen should be reflecting our rich woodworking heritage.  Alas, a Pennsylvanian was sent to us to shame us with some wonderful display pieces which reflected some healthy reading.

John has obviously studied George Nakashima, and his craftsmanship reflects the careful precision of James Krenov. I have no doubt that his work incorporates many other influences, allowing him to create pieces from his own soul with confidence and personality (I have not studied Shibui, but it’s my cup of tea).  Most importantly, John allows the wood to speak.  He doesn’t argue with it or force it to say something he feels the potential buyer might want to hear; he allows the wood to shape the piece, which invites the observer close, to touch it, to handle it, to smell it, to observe.

When I stepped under his tent to caress the desk he had on display, all the commotion of the Festival was attenuated; I could hear the wood pulsating, speaking.  All I could manage to say to John was, “You’re the only one here that makes furniture, um, you know.”  And then, “You know what the ‘you know’ means, right?”  I felt sad to leave his tent.  But I had to find my pottery piece.

Richard Aerni

Along the way to find my pottery piece, I was drawn into a few other tents.  One of them was of the artist Richard Aerni.  Richard makes pottery that has its own character.  Fire has cooled within his glazes, with the result that even though the colors Richard uses are earth-tones, they are robust. He keeps his designs simple so that the expertise of his skills are manifested, an artist coming into contact with everyday vessels.  His vessels do not speak as do John Sterling’s, but they do murmur, audibly, and the murmuring is friendly, like a conversation you’d like to hear, even if you didn’t quite understand what you were hearing.

Dawns Early Light

A photography exhibit reached out and pulled me within.  I love exhibitors who can do this: they make a veritable gallery out of a pop-up tent.  It’s amazing, the heavy backdrops, the lighting, the virtual space.  David Lawrence Reade has the talent (or has hired the talent), to make a crowded box seem vast.  When I moved, I bumped two people, one on either side of me, but as long as we all stood still, we were yards apart from each other.

His photography is similar, capturing vastness within a limited frame and, at the same time, bringing a subject near.  At first glance, his work appears clichè, adding color to a single element within a black-and-white presence, but clichè does not have power, you see; it is clichè because it has no power.  Even the titles of his pieces resemble the clichè.  David’s work, however, has power, so one must look more closely.  What is he doing?

The Parade descended upon us suddenly and joyously.

I’m not quite sure, so the mystery causes more active discovery.  Simple subjects, such as trees, mountains, canoes, etc., create existential ruminations.  I suppose that his eye for distance as beauty puts the observer in that uncomfortable crevice between nihilism and theodicy.

Second Wind Weaving

Nachmu the Elder paused before Margaret Cherre, a delightful weaver.  While my eight-year old son shouted over the din of the Festival, Margaret very patiently explained to him the process of weaving, demonstrating with a working, smaller model loom.  Nachmu the Elder thinks about many things at the same time, but he is able to hold the threads of his thoughts together, flinging question after question at his teacher, which can often cause the teacher some measure of exasperation (believe you me!).

Margaret Cherre demonstrates for Nachmu the Elder

Margaret was very adept at maintaining his focus, even amidst the sudden marching of the childrens’ Slow and Steady Snail Parade, and she even offered to let him manipulate the loom.  He declined, insisting that she describe the larger kinds of looms in detail, even the kind in a factory.  She finally had to demur when the requests became fantastic, but in the meantime, she gave him all her attention.

Her work reflects this character, as well.  The articles she weaves are thoroughly well-crafted. Her love of the craft of weaving is upon your flesh, and it is a lovely feel.

Junko McGee

I had crawled up and down the artists’ marketplace and had not found my pottery piece.  I feared that she had become ill or bankrupt in between the time I had met her and today.  I sent my family into the Lexington Co-op so that I could anguish without their presence.  Where was she?

It occurred to me that perhaps she had a place nearer the main stage, north of the co-op. I turned my head that direction. Immediately, my eye saw my piece, and I made a beeline for it.  After seeing every piece of visual art at the festival, after having been bombarded by music of every genre, after being jostled and turned by a numberless throng, I was still enthralled by her raku pieces.  “Earth Art,” she calls herself.  Whatever.  It’s heavenly stuff.

Junko has brought down the spirits of the sky to dwell within lifeless clay; she’s playing God, and she plays it quite well, using the almost-ancient Japanese technique of low-heat firing hand-molded pottery.  Her hands are divine because you cannot see them in her work, but her work is not manufactured; it is created.  Her own spirit shines from within the darkness of the clay, causing her pieces to not speak, but to sing.  They laud.  One must touch her work, handle her work, caress it, but one does so with absolute fear and trembling.

She has no website, but she has a husband, an advocate, and a knowledgeable storyteller and virtual tour guide of Western New York.  His love of the region and for her magnifies her work, I have no doubt.  I wish I could remember his name, but holding onto this work of art caused me to lose my memory, even though it was veiled, protecting me from its radiance by mere packaging paper, threatening to burst into flames.

I rushed home to set it into a place of highest honor.

I am not so overwhelmed that I do not see my own biases.  Nachmu HQ is an Arts and Crafts Bungalow, created during the culmination of all that post-Victorian work throughout the Western world.  Art which is the result of artisanship appeals to me, especially art which allows the elements of the artisanship to be visible to the observer, which causes the observer to become a part of the art itself.  The artisan, the piece, and the observer are joined in a kind of communion; a portal is opened wherein we co-mingle and participate with one another in a common experience.  The material, the work, the finished object, and the observer are one.  We are all givers, and we all receive. 

I think that I could say, in a few words, that having sprung from a culture that is amplified and aggressive, I like to be invited.

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