URBANA, Illinois — A few weekends ago, I drove 160 miles south from Chicago to Urbana, Illinois, to take in the Boneyard Arts Festival, a four-day program of open studios, literary readings, concerts, street performances and other arts-related activities. There are arts festivals all over the United States, from major cities like New York and Chicago to medium-sized university towns like Urbana and Iowa City. I’ve even attended “arts weekends” in tiny farming towns in the Midwest, where no more than 1,500 people live but at least 300 of them fancy themselves artists of some sort. From the metropolis to Anytown, USA, an arts weekend is seen as an opportunity not just to have fun and enjoy the arts, but somehow to boast a little about your town’s profile.
Some background about Urbana: It’s a city of about 40,000 people in the middle of Illinois, joined at the hip with neighboring Champaign, which has the campus of the University of Illinois, an academic juggernaut with an international reputation in engineering and science. Many U of I graduates stick around for decades after finishing their studies, including graduates of the arts programs, so this combination of relative affluence and a population of highly educated people experienced or interested in the arts contributes to the popularity of the Boneyard Festival, and the number of artists, galleries and small arts organizations that take part.
The festival takes its name from Boneyard Creek, the major drainage channel for Champaign, which is said to be named after a creek where Native Americans discarded the bones from their hunting trips. As with any festival, juried or not, there was a large variation in the quality of what was on display. Exhibits at U of I’s Krannert Center (an exhibition of American glass) and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (text and image collaborations between the creative writing department and Soybean Press) were almost guaranteed to be very good. At the other end, you could wander into galleries on Urbana’s Main Street and see acres of paintings that, shall we say, needed a little more application of thought and skill.
I felt the urge to compare what I saw on my snapshot visit with other festivals I’ve attended, but I tried to resist. As Shakespeare’s Dogberry said: “Comparisons are odorous” (a clever malapropism for “odious”). The piece that interested me the most was an installation in a small house a few streets away from the center of town. Artists Meredith Foster and Chris Carl had emptied their rented house of all the furniture and given the rooms over to their environment-based work.
Carl, who is studying landscape architecture at U of I, works with a local landowner on maintaining and preserving a substantial area of native prairie. He photographs the work that goes into this, as well as the burning and illegal destruction that he witnesses. He filled one of the rooms with things that he has found discarded or unwanted on the prairie: shards of old pottery, birds’ nests, stone markers that look like sculptures, a burned tree stump. Although Carl painted the roots of the tree, he prefers to collect and show rather than modify too much. The sun room of the house, for example, was filled with an impressive arrangement of branches from an autumn olive tree. It had a sculptural presence that seemed more than just the result of accident.
Foster’s piece consisted of a topographical map of a local river and its surroundings, drawn on the floor in ash and charcoal that she had removed from the prairie and then burned. Entitled “Kicking up Dust,” it was more intentional, more guided than her partner’s work, but I nevertheless responded strongly to the texture and contrasts that she explored in the materials. It made for a good contrast with the more free-form, arbitrary work in the rest of the house.
I only skimmed the surface of a festival that lasted four days, but I came away feeling that I had seen something worthwhile and that the event justified the effort the community had put into it. Many events will be reprised or will continue to be exhibited in the coming weeks; more information is available at the organizers’ website.