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Road Warries

Sometimes, say veterans of the outdoor art show circuit, it’s the heat thatgets you. Others insist high winds and unexpected downpours are the worst.These creative types spend months making beautiful things for the rest of usto enjoy, and much time and effort carting them from place to place. Theyrack up thousands of miles on their odometers. Dealing with every kind ofweather, along with breakdowns, delays, detours and road food are just part of the joband par for the course.But the terrible flash flood here at Boston Mills last June that turned the Thursdaypreview night into a disaster was no run-of-the-mill mishap. Waist-high water rushedthrough the North Tent. Work just floated away. Much was damaged beyond repair.Some exhibitors never arrived because the roads were washed out, while others, whohad set up earlier, couldn’t get back to rescue their inventory. After the deluge, the placewas left ankle-deep in mud. Everyone helped in the massive cleanup effort, includingthose who had not been affected. Much to everyone’s surprise, especially the staff, Artfestopened on Saturday morning.That determined, roll-with-the-punches, lend-a-hand spirit defines these artists andcraftsmen who come to Boston Mills Artfest every year. I asked some of them to sharetheir stories of life on the road.Road WarriorsArtists share their travel adventuresby Laura TaxelBoston Mills ArtfestJames WilbatGlassNo matter where he’s headed, the golfclubs go into the van first, “just incase,” says James Wilbat. They’re part ofhis backup plan. “I figure if I get stucksomewhere, at least I can play a few roundswhile I wait for the truck to be repaired.”Wilbat, a glassblower from Deerfield,Ill., spends the fall and winter building uphis stock of brightly colored vessels, paperweights,perfume bottles, and playfultotemic sculptures he’s named “his girls.”From April to September he’s at a showevery weekend, and he’s been doing thatsince 1984.One thing he’s learned is that his colleaguesare a fine bunch of people.“In business, competitors don’t helpeach other. It’s usually dog eat dog. Butwe’re a very supportive community.You’re never really alone on the circuit.We hang out at night, socializing, sharingworries and talking shop.”The fragile nature of his wares makespacking a complicated operation. Everypiece is swaddled in bubble wrap, and thentucked into plastic bins with locking lids.He usually fills 30 of them, and each oneweights anywhere from 30 to 80 pounds.“They have to be stacked just right,”Wilbat explains. “There’s a science to makingthem fit in the van.”He also brings nine backdrops (to givehis booth a gallery feel), tables, tarps andweights — sections of PVC pipe filled withconcrete — to keep his tentfrom blowing away during astorm.“Some artists leave theirdisplays set up overnight. I alwaysput my pieces back in thevan,” he says. “It’s more work,but I sleep better that way, becauseyou just never knowwhat’s going to happen.”The Georgia couplecast graceful humanfigures in gleamingbronze. The large, hollowpieces are always fragmentary,looking as ifthey’re artifacts from ancienttimes. But the missingarms, legs and headsare intentional. The sculptures are incrediblydurable — a big plus since they crisscrossthe country in the back of a van andare exhibited outside.Triny Cline and Mike Sherrer have hadtheir share of oil leaks, brake trouble andface-offs with Mother Nature, including aclose encounter with a tornado. But nothingbeats the cow problem.“I’m driving at night, cruising alongin the fast lane, headed to Boston Mills,”Sherrer says, “when the car in front of meswerves. I see something big up ahead. Ican’t do anything but try to slow down.”Cline chimes in. “We’re in a Toyotapickup, pulling a trailer. We hit the thingdead on, but kind of bounce over it.”A few minutes later, smoke is billowingfrom the rear of trailer. They pull over anddiscover that the axle is seriously bent, thetires are perpendicular to the mounts, andeverything is covered with gore. It takeshours for a tow truck to arrive. The nextmorning they rent a trailer, repack it, andarrive at Artfest a day late.“A state patrolman told us a farmerhad lost a cow,” Sherrer says. “I guess wefound it.”“Every festival artist has a storylike this,” Cline says, “but we’re atough bunch. We get it fixed andget going.”Gary WhittakerJewelry, Vuja de DesignsHis entire selection of 60to 70 unique handcraftedgold and platinum jewelry setwith gemstones fits in a backpack. But thatdoesn’t mean that Gary Whittaker travelslight. For the past nine years, he’s been creatinga posh, upscale jewelry store withinhis show booth, complete with big displaycases. Specially designed, they use plasticin place of glass so they’re not as heavy asthey appear to be, but the finished look isjust as elegant. He fills an SUV and a trailerwith the setup every time he leaves his studionear Indianapolis.“I’m going to 10 to 12 shows a yearnow,” he says. Often, he adds, during anAugust heat wave he’ll swear he’ll never doanother summer show. But when it’s timeto apply, he can’t resist filling in the formsfor his favorites.He and his girlfriend, a ceramicist, areregulars at a Cincinnati event that falls onThanksgiving weekend. They always hangout with the same group of fellow travelers.Everyone brings food, and they gatherin somebody’s hotel room to feast andplay cards.Whittaker values those relationships,but even so he admits he’s always happy toget home, see his dog, and get back to doingthe work he loves.Marilee HallCeramicsFor Marilee Hall, long-distance drivinginduces a kind of euphoria. Shetakes to the highway from her Cookeville,Tenn., home almost once a month, lattein hand, and can go eight hours straight.Hall, who’s been doing pottery since1978, has put 240,000 miles on her vanhauling her white earthenware wall constructionsand sculptural vessels from showto show. This summer she’ll celebrate her56th birthday en route to Kansas City.Over the years she’s dealt with countlesscrises — from locking her keys in thetruck and having her money stolen to superstorms that send tents flying.Emergencies make the adrenaline flow.“You feel like a mother protecting yourchildren,” says Hall. ”But no matter whathappens, there’s never time to feel sorryfor yourself. There’s too much to do.”And then there are what she describes as“the blessings.”“I always go from the Boston Mills Artfestto my mom’s house in Louisville, drivingall night to get there. She leaves thelight on and has a glass of sherry and twocookies waiting for me.”But for Hall the best gift is the chance tointeract with patrons.“My pieces come from the heart. It’sgratifying when someone else connectswith them,” she says. “The fact that theyappreciate what I do makes me so happy.”Sandra Klink3-Dimensional Whimsical AssemblageHer business card should read: “Haveanimals, will travel (reluctantly).” SandraKlink createswondrousand utterlycharming clothcreatures — anassortment ofjust about everythingthatmight havebooked a seaton the Ark — that she sells at eight or nineselect art festivals. But she hates to drive.“I’m not good at finding my way aroundunfamiliar places, and highway traffic intimidatesme,” she says.This summer Klink has five shows in sixweeks.“I’ll come home to Bethel [Penn.] for aday in between and then leave again,” shesays.Driving may test her resolve, but weathercan be a tribulation.“Water is very scary to someone whoworks in fabric. On the bright side, mypieces can’t break,” she says.What keeps Klink doing it is the chanceto see the delight on people’s faces whenthey encounter her whimsical critters.“They step into my booth and smile,”she says. “It’s all about those smiles.”Dennis DavisPaintingWhen I called Dennis Davis on hiscell phone last March, the Gary,Ind., resident was in Florida. But he wasn’ton vacation. He was showing his conceptualacrylic paintings at an art fair andwouldn’t be home for another week. Inhis 32-year career, he estimates he’s beento about 900 such events.“I’m just as serious an artist as thosewho exhibit in more formal settings. Manyvery, very good artists choose this route,”he says.Davis also values the freedom thatcomes with the lifestyle. He admits that hisworkweeks are usually more than 40 hoursbut likes the fact that it’s never 9 to 5.“It’s true we have no job security, butwho does these days?” he says. “I’ve beenable to rely on the patrons who come to fineart and craft shows like Boston Mills.” t

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