The Art of Community
By Brad McEwen
Like a lot of things the McEwen family ends up doing on any given weekend, our trip down to the 100 block of Pine Avenue last fall for what turned out to be one of the coolest events we’ve ever experienced in the Good Life City, was basically spur of the moment.
As is always the case, with a fully-scheduled life revolving around the softball, baseball, football, basketball and scouting exploits of the two eldest McEwen children, making any kind of weekend plan is always tough—as those two days of (most of the time) freedom are the last two we really want to fill up with more stuff.
But so it was that a plan-less group of McEwens (still basking in the glow of the recent arrival of then 3 month-old baby Rhodes) decided to meet our good family friends the Ciobans in downtown Albany one Saturday last October to enjoy the Albany Museum of Arts’ inaugural ChalkFest.
Now, as someone who made the personal choice to leave my drinking days behind, I have to admit the lure of attending what I saw as a craft beer tasting event in front of the newly christened Pretoria Fields brewery, was not as great as it once was.
But something inside told me I needed to support the folks at the museum (my old compatriot Jim Hendricks, as well as my friends Paula Williams and Chloe Hinton and countless other champions of the arts) and enjoy something new and unique in my often maligned town—even if I wasn’t super pumped about hanging out with a bunch of beer drinkers.
Well, as someone who really tries to be a straight-shooter, I don’t mind admitting that my skepticism about attending the event, turned out to be totally unwarranted.
Sure there were folks who were clearly there to sample as many of the wares the various craft beer vendors from around the Southeast had brought to the event, but what really grabbed my attention was how diverse the crowd was and how well-put-together the entire celebration was.
For an event that really had no precedent in Albany, the staff and volunteers from the AMA did a fantastic job, bringing in an event more commonly seen in cosmopolitan places like Atlanta or college towns like Athens while still highlighting the SWGA culture that makes this place so special.
In addition to the craft brewery stations, the event featured food trucks, arts and crafts vendors, local artists, copious children’s activities, and (perhaps even more importantly to an audiophile like myself) a wide variety of musical entertainment served up by Albany area artists young and old, playing the typical smorgasbord of country, R&B, and rock and roll that makes the Albany music scene so fantastic.
In short, I don’t know that I could have had a better time.
Despite heat that was a little unseasonable, everyone I bumped into was grinning ear to ear and welcoming their friends and neighbors with warmth and humanity.
And if that wasn’t enough, the event’s main thrust—a celebration of the incredible talent of chalk artists (a group whose intricate and incredibly detailed work is often only there to enjoy for a brief time before it fades)—provided some of the most exciting and unique artwork I’ve had the privilege of seeing, all created in real time right in front of the hundreds of attendees who joined us on that beautiful fall Saturday.
I knew before we ever pulled out of the old Albany Herald parking lot to head home that afternoon, that at some point I had to share this experience in Beyond the Bank, but I intentionally waited, hoping I’d have the opportunity this year to not only share my thoughts and feelings, but also perhaps help gin up additional excitement for a second ChalkFest.
And now that opportunity has arrived.
This coming Saturday, the McEwens (and I hope Chad, Hannah, Caroline and Ben—as well as several other friends of ours) won’t make a spur of the moment decision to venture downtown for the second annual ChalkFest. We’ll show up on the 100 block of Pine for this year’s event dubbed “Pop Art & Pop Tops,” just as we’d planned nearly a year ago.
And based on recent conversations I’ve had with Jim, Chloe and AMA board member and ChalkFest Chair Mallory Black, this year’s event seems likely to not only repeat the success of the inaugural year but build upon it—even if some of those involved might have a hard to imagining how that could even be possible.
“We actually were a little overwhelmed last year,” Mallory told me during a recent Beyond the Bank interview in advance of this year’s event. “With it being a first year event, and something that’s totally new that’s never really been done before in the community, we didn’t really know what kind of response we were going to get when we put the word out. And you can presell tickets all you want, but until the day of the event we were really kind of nervous—we had put a lot of our love into it.
“But we were absolutely floored at the response and the attendance, and the feedback.
“We had people coming up before the event was even over—businesses, volunteers, just attendees—asking how they could get involved for the years to come and that they were really excited to have a new event in Albany that is something that does touch a lot of the areas of the community and families.
“So we were really pleased and really excited to start round 2 and now here we are a couple of weeks away.”
In addition to the absolutely overwhelming feedback event organizers received after last year’s ChalkFest, Mallory said museum officials are equally excited about expanding on many of the pieces of ChalkFest that have made it such an interesting and unique event—craft beer, refreshments, entertainment and of course chalk art.
While beer drinking is no longer something I actively seek out, there’s no denying the recent rise in the popularity of brewing and in regional craft breweries like our own Pretoria Fields. Across the country and really around the globe, the popularity of beer seems to be at an all-time high and much of that excitement has been the proliferation of smaller, independent breweries putting their own unique twist on a beverage that is nearly as old as civilization itself.
So for me, one the strongest draws to ChalkFest is the presence of various breweries and distributors who will have beer-tasting stations set up in and around the chalk art squares. And this year, Mallory said the event will feature even more fun and exciting brews for folks to sample.
“At this point we have about 15 vendors lined up,” she said. “So I’d say we’ll have about 35-45 different types of beers and cider. We’ll have a lot of them from Georgia or around the Southeast that folks might have heard of, but we’ll also have some from some other parts of the country that folks might not know about.”
In addition to Pretoria Fields, ChalkFest will feature a wide-variety of beers from brewers like Ballast Point Brewing Co., Cherry Street, Eden Ice Ciders, Eventide Brewing, Funky Buddha, Hubbard’s Cave, Macon Beer Co., Monday Night Brewing, North 2 South Cider Works, Ology Brewing, Omaha Brewing Co., Orpheus Brewing, Pretoria Fields Collective, Scofflaw Brewing Co., SweetWater Brewing Co., and Terrapin Beer Co.
“I think it’s really fun to some of these that are kind of out-of-towns, to try something different,” Mallory added. “We should have a line-up of really good beer.”
While craft beer tasting is certainly one of the major draws of ChalkFest, so too is the food every beer drinker likes to pair with a good brew, which is why Mallory said event planners will be expanding the selections this year by adding more area vendors.
“We’ve really tried to increase that this year,” she said. “Last year we felt a great need for that; we needed more food. It was hot, people were drinking craft beer and they need something on their stomachs, so we really reached out to some more food vendors this year. I think we’ve got about 10-12 food vendors this year. You don’t want too many because you want them to return next year. We want them to come out with a profit and feel it was worth their while to be involved.
“We have different food vendors again, from your stuff like cheesesteaks, burgers and fries, to cupcakes, smoothies, BBQ, coffee, shaved ice. We have pork skins, roasted corn and we actually have a good bit more this year. We’re got the Rocket coming; they’re going to do some food this year. I think we have a really good mix this year so I’m excited about that.”
Of course as great as having tasty brews and yummy eats are, those things wouldn’t be needed were it not for the main thrust of the day—checking out the incredible work of talent professional and amateur chalk artists from around the Southeast.
Each of the artists participating will be creating 50-square-foot images with colored chalk on the pavement along Pine, and if last year is any indication of the sheer talent that will be on display, area art lovers won’t want to miss it.
Although I’d have a hard time telling a pen and ink work from a basic charcoal sketch, or a watercolor from an oil painting, I didn’t need to have the technical knowledge that my former art major wife has to realize the power of what I witnessed.
From abstracts, to landscapes, to portraits and everything in between, each chalk square we saw was a wonder of vision and talent and after talking a little more with Mallory I understand why.
Basically the idea of a ChalkFest is not unique to Albany, as museums and communities across the country regularly feature chalk art events—meaning there is a large community of chalk artist who travel extensively to have a chance to display their creativity. In fact, Mallory said recently retired AMA Executive Director Paula Williams, who developed the ChalkFest idea here, was inspired by a similar event she attended in Atlanta.
“She is very tied in with the Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art and they have a festival every year, it’s their Chalktober Fest, so we spin off of that,” said Mallory. “Actually, I think we kind of ran up against that this year that there was another festival or two going on because a lot of people do them in the fall. This is across the country and there’s a group of people that seek them. They love to go to the different areas and showcase what they have, so that’s kind of where the idea came from.”
Mallory said this year will feature 12 professional chalk artists who hail mostly from Georgia and the Southeast, several of which are returning from last due to the great experience they had in Albany.
“We actually have a good many returning,” she said. “We actually only have three or four new this year. And Heather Cap who actually was our winner last year, she’s returning.
“Then in addition to the professionals, we’ll have several amateurs from the area too, who have shown and interest and talent in that. So we open this up to them as well. We’ll probably have five or six of those this year.”
Mallory added that like last year, ChalkFest will also feature several local artists who work in other mediums like painting, photography and sculpture, displaying and selling their work at the event. There will also be vendors with home décor and plenty of activities for children, including giving each child in attendance a box of chalk so they can participate in the fun creating instant art in special areas designated for them.
In fact, Mallory really stressed the ChalkFest’s connection to children, explaining that the museum is partnering with the local schools and providing art students from the different schools with their own squares to decorate as they see fit.
“The education department at the museum does an excellent job of building relationships and the educational portion of the museum goes along with the school system,” Mallory explained. “So with something like this they are more than willing to help and join us in our efforts with the festival.
“We’re up to like 23 schools just in the Dougherty County School System which is huge. I think we had about half of that last year. We also have Deerfield upper school, who will have a square there. And I think 1st Presbyterian Church will have a square too. So we will give them all a 5x5 chalk square and that’s theirs to decorate. They do their thing in that square.
“Again education is a huge piece of the museum is bringing in children,” she continued. “And something that we’ve learned about this experience is we have the professional chalk artists, we have the craft beer, but we also want to highlight these students who are very interested and very skilled in the arts. The museum is very proud of our community and what the art departments have done, and so we’re happy to have them at ChalkFest to kind of showcase that.”
I think it’s important to note that Mallory referenced pride in the community when discussing the local schools and their students, because really community is at the heart of the event.
While the museum has always tried to cater to the entire community, Mallory said it’s an important part of the AMA’s mission to find new and exciting ways to get the community interested and involved in the arts.
In fact, when formulating the idea of ChalkFest, which now serves as the museum’s major fall fundraiser, Mallory said organizers took the approach of creating an event that is as much about providing something for the community, as it is about generating funding for the museum’s other programming.
“I have been on the board for about three and a half years now and I’m kind of an event planner at heart, and I do a lot of that here in my job at CNI, so I was the chair of ‘Touch a Truck’ for the last two years,” Mallory said. “We decided we wanted to change up one of our main fundraisers to something that would include the entire family and expand into more of a community thing, so it’s kind of natural transfer.
“There’s a lot of people in the community that don’t get involved with the museum and this was kind of my take on it at first before I got on the board—was there was the museum, art, you look at these paintings or sculptures,” Mallory continued. “But what I love is being able to tell the community that there’s way more about the arts than going to the museum and looking at a piece of art on the wall.
“The chalk art is incredible. There’s the art of making beer. And if you look at all these beer cans, they’re so different and that’s art too. We have local artists with pottery, painting and jewelry and that’s art. Food, everybody makes kind of their own kind of specialty and to them that’s an art. So we’re trying to tie everything in. So instead of actually visiting the museum we want people to look at all aspects of art.”
Mallory said the ChalkFest also provides a way for the museum to help other nonprofits in the community as well.
In addition to having places like Chehaw participating the day of the event, Mallory said she believes the concept of ChalkFest in and of itself will help other groups gain traction for their events, by showing the community that there is a lot of great stuff going on in the Albany area.
“There’s a lot of, ‘There’s nothing to do in Albany. There’s nothing that I can take my kids to that I would enjoy,’ whatever it may be,” she said. “You worked at the newspaper and you’re in marketing in Albany, so you know how comments get around.
“But you know, there ARE things. This is just another way to give the community something fun to get involved with that. And the museum likes to promote what everyone else is doing because our community partners do so much for us.
“This year has been outstanding. WALB has run tons and tons and tons of ads. Jim is excellent at social media. We’re really trying to get the word out because we want to be successful and we want people to come back and we want to give others some stamina to do the same and have the same response.
“So all in all I think it’s a good thing for the community and we want it to be good for the community overall.”
As someone who tries as hard as possible to not only attend community events, but promote them in whatever spheres where I have influence, Mallory’s assertion is spot on. And there’s no denying that when we attended ChalkFest last year, we left feeling excited and encouraged about our community and its future.
In an age when it’s easier to point fingers or complain about something, it was refreshing to see a true representation of the diverse demographics of this area coming together to celebrate not just the arts and the museum, but the rich Southwest Georgia community that I cherish.
While I’ll always try to encourage others in my community to support all the fun and exciting things going on around town on any given day, I can’t stress enough how much fun the McEwens (and the hundreds of other attendees who enjoyed the day with us) had at ChalkFest.
And even though my crew regularly has a highly scheduled existence, we will continue to make time to enjoy ChalkFest for years to come—because I believe this can grow into a signature event, not just for the museum, but for the entire community.
I truly do hope you all can join me for what promises to be a magical day in the Good Life City.
ChalkFest will kick off at 10 a.m. on Saturday and feature entertainment and live music throughout the day, including the Deerfield Contemporary Band, the Monroe Comprehensive High School Band, the Westover Royal Dolls Dance Team, acoustic sets by artists like Phillip Williams and Julie Bennett, and performances by local bands Backseat Driving and BoDean and The Poachers.
General admission to the event is $5, with children 12 and under admitted free of charge. Admission with unlimited beer tastings and a souvenir glass (must be 21 or older) is $35 and there are also a limited number of VIP tickets available for $75 on a first come, first served basis.
The VIP ticket includes unlimited craft beer tastings and admission, a premium souvenir glass, as well as access to the VIP area in Pretoria Fields, which will feature televisions showing Saturday football, air conditioned seating area, heavy hors de’ouvres and other amenities.
The VIP tickets also include a premium parking space downtown as well as admission to the ChalkFest kickoff party being hosted by the AMA Young Contemporaries group Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Flint, where guests will have a chance to meet and mingle with several of the professional chalk artists.
For more detailed information about all the ChalkFest activities, as well as information on how to volunteer to help pour beer, contact the AMA at 229.431.8400 or visit the Albany Museum of Art Facebook page. You can also visit the organization’s dedicated site, www.amachalkfest.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lastly, anyone is invited to drop by the museum, located at 311 Meadowlark Drive, where admission is always free.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - email@example.com - @BradGMcEwen