Taking my checkbook to an art show is kind of like posting a “no speed limit” sign in front of a lead-footed motorist. Woo-hoo! I love being amidst a collection of artists selling their work in a confined, walkable area. When there’s a good quotient of high-quality art, I can spend most of a day visiting and revisiting artist booths – getting to know the artists and discerning what “speaks to me.” This has been particularly true for me (and my checkbook) each year at the Taste of the Gardens at Wellfield Botanic Gardens.
About six years ago, I was approached by the late Terry McRae and Wellfield’s former director, Eric Amt, about staging an art show as part of the Wellfield Botanic Gardens project. I knew very little about the former water works site, other than that the Elkhart Noon Rotary and the Wellfield Foundation were hoping to raise millions of dollars to develop a world-class series of gardens and waterways. They wanted to host a Saturday event that would feature local artists, along with a showcase of food from local restaurants.
Recruiting artists to participate in a first-ever event is tough. Most are booked months ahead for summer shows, and many are leery about investing in an unproven show. Lots of calls and emails were made, and we ended up with 29 artists. Several did not have tents, so we rented some for them. When the day came, it was drizzling. In fact, it rained all day. Nearly 2,000 people – loyal to the gardens project, rotary or both – came out. Art got sold, and the artists had great things to say about the event and the many volunteers who assisted them. They were particularly impressed by the outdoor setting, despite the rain.
The next year (2010), it was a lot easier to recruit artists to participate in the show. Rotary made a generous investment in acquiring over 40 uniform white tents – which is unheard of in the world of art shows – and over 80 artists participated. The weather was sublime, and my “haul” of watercolor, pottery and two acrylic paintings filled my back seat and trunk. Over 6,000 people attended. The gardens were beginning to really take shape, and the public sculpture that had been recently installed there was breathtaking. I discovered some terrific artists. Elizabeth Wamsley’s earthy and expressive ceramic forms earned her a top-juried prize that year. I bought some of her work, which formed the basis of my passion for collecting northern Indiana potters.
Also in 2010, I asked interior designer Nanci Wirt serve with me as volunteer co-chair of the art show. She’s still at it. After the 2011 “Taste of the Gardens” event (which again saw great weather and record crowds), I begged off whereas Nanci has continued to vet artists and patiently explain the guidelines for participation and rules for the juried purchase award competition. From early morning check-in of each artist to packing up the last tents in record heat, Nanci has remained committed to this event. As a designer, she understands the benefits of collecting a wide range of artistic styles, media and ability. She too “shops” the event, because there is so much that is one-of-a-kind, there are always great values and often there can be found items seldom seen at other area art fairs. The now sought-after abstract painter Brian Boothe entered his first ever art show at Wellfield in 2010. He has since won two “People’s Choice” awards at ArtWalk and has sold a huge number of paintings in the past four years. That remarkable local patronage began for him at “Taste of the Gardens.”
What makes this art fair so special (besides the great buys)? It’s the setting. The ponds, the bold creek, the majestic trees and the profusion of artfully planted flowers. Artistic expression can be found along any path, from every bench, in any corner -- as more careful development has yielded a (literally) growing community asset. I have heard the grousing about, “Why do we have to pay admission to go to a dang park?” It’s not a park. It’s a work of art, on a former public utility site for which – at the time rotary committed to its development 10 years ago – there was no long-term plan for mitigating seeping water pollution and maintaining its infrastructure. All subsequent development has been paid for by private dollars – donated by hundreds of individuals, foundations and local businesses – for the purpose of creating a world-class, 36-acre botanical garden that will have a lasting public benefit.
Try something. Go to Wellfield Botanic Gardens on Saturday, Aug. 23, for the 6th Annual Taste of the Gardens and plan to take a closer look at the artwork on display. Then take a closer look at the setting. Art on art doesn’t happen every day. Take advantage of this beautiful spot. And invest in some art while you’re there.