The Fair Ground Festival
When you are someone whose brain revolves so completely around words, it is a rare thing to be rendered speechless. And yet, here I am. And so, here I will try.
I woke up Sunday morning not knowing what direction the day would take. The Thornapple Arts Council board of directors made a massive leap of faith — not its first at my request — at its January meeting to take on the inaugural Fair Ground Festival. There was trepidation in the room, but the vote was unanimous: we were moving forward with this female-led music festival with the goal of putting Barry County on the cultural map. Sunday was the day that would see that vote come to fruition.
The next seven months were a whirlwind. We had what felt like a million meetings. We were at a disadvantage of starting late, so we had to make a lot of quick decisions about logistics, not always getting exactly what we wanted, and spending more money than we wanted to do it. None of us had done anything close to this before, so every step forward was our first step in that direction.
Our committee members entered a room together for the first time knowing each other a little bit, or only knowing of each other, or never having met each other at all. By the end, we had a constantly-dinging group chat of conversations both professional and personal, checking in and making jokes and supporting and coordinating and forging relationships that were firmly in the camp of “friends” by the end of it all. It was not a seamless process. It was not perfect or without disagreement. But having a common goal in mind, and hearts dedicated to the service of the cause, made it all work.
What I learned in this process cannot be summed up in one Facebook post, one conversation, one meeting, one book. The lessons were both personal and professional; superficial and bone-deep. This festival changed who I am as a person, a leader, a friend, a colleague.
There are not enough words in my limited vocabulary to thank all the people without whose deep commitment this project would have been dead in the water. Committee members gave their time, their money, their mental health, their anniversary celebrations, their last bits of summer to make this happen. How do you thank people who gave more than you could have asked for because they believed in your vision? You try. That’s how.
First, Kathleen Welch and Shelby Froncheck. This *literally* would never have gotten off the ground if not for these two. Kathleen keeps our whole staff grounded and in the public’s eye (in a positive way!) and looking good and telling our story. She keeps me from losing my head and getting carried away by the unimportant things. If you have ever had a favorable impression of the Thornapple Arts Council, it is because of Kathleen. Shelby arrived a short five months ago and hit the ground running. She is organized with a memory like a steel trap and loves a good spreadsheet, and that is more important than most people realize. She has displayed commendable leadership and dedication and creativity, from making sure our volunteers had lunch and water to making sure our committee stayed on track to making me go home and rest when I sat at my desk and stress cried. For every move I made to make this festival happen, these two each made three moves.
Michelle Duits has been a champion for this event since the board made The Vote in January, offering right away to serve as co-chair. She has been at allllllllll the meetings since January, volunteering her time, her treasures, her talents, her camper, her crock pot, her truck, her husband. If Michelle ever offers to help you, know that you’re getting no less than a godsend of a volunteer who is fully invested and involved in every. single. thing she commits her time to.
Steve Hoke has been a volunteer with the Thornapple Arts Council since before I started in 2009. I never knew that in retirement, he would become a fricking superhero of a volunteer. The Fair Ground Festival happened because of Steve Hoke. He spent more hours than anyone else picking up, dropping off, hauling, coordinating, negotiating, coordinating again, reminding me, picking up more stuff, fixing a port-o-jon toilet, then driving around in a golf cart for 20 hours making sure everything was functioning the way it was supposed to. He also became more of a friend and confidant than I could ever have hoped, keeping me from losing my head on more than one occasion in the last month.
Nichole Lyke brought her MANY talents, ideas, boatloads of information and enthusiasm for technology (yuck) to the table early, and stayed the whole time. She believed in the goals of the festival before we even told her what they were. She handled everything with patience and grace, and if she ever had a ruffled feather, you wouldn’t know it. She always has ideas blooming for next year, and we are all eternally grateful for her patience with me and the rest of the Boomers who couldn’t figure out the card readers.
Cloe Rose Oliver and Emily Doherty have been two of my best friends for a while now. They both have one million things going on in their lives, but somehow managed to find the time to show up with bells on and lead committees and take care of stuff like the boss bitches they are. And then they both hugged me as I stood weeping at the beauty of our combined success. These are the women who are helping move us all forward.
But really, nobody does Boss Bitch like Lani Forbes and she did not disappoint. She commanded all of our security, health and safety, traffic logistics and the mobile morgue (which we were all sad/grateful we didn’t need to use). She remained unflappable and cool-headed, even when I wanted desperately to throttle people. She kept the show running smoothly and made sure every single person who set foot inside that space was safe.
One of my favorite parts of the Fair Ground Festival is that Erin Merritt and I are friends now. She took on a monumental task, with no idea what she was really stepping into. She didn’t let a broken bone slow her down, spending two+ days hobbling around the fairgrounds, doing everything she signed on to do and then some. And then she was out there the next day to help pack it in, and then the day after that too. Her humor and dedication and ideas made the event *that* much more fun.
A huge thank you to Jan Jasienski-Hawthorne who took on the moving target of feeding performers and crew and running around like a mad woman to make everyone’s food fantasies come true. Jan is truly unfrazzled, up for any task and approaches all of life joyfully. Her generosity and thoughtful touches pushed our hospitality to the next level.
Thanks also to Jenn Killian (and Madison Killian and Kendra!) for their enthusiastic support of water stations and general helping hands and enthusiasm for every part of the festival. I love that we are friends now, and I extra love the palpable excitement of two young girls when they got to meet festival performers. I think we can consider the next generation of creatives pretty well inspired!
And last but not least. Amber Buist. She was the first person I talked to about this. She did not ask nearly enough questions about my very limited abilities before she let her enthusiasm for the idea carry her away. I wanted a festival. She is the one who made it into a music festival led by female musicians. She recruited the kick-ass lineup. She made sure we had a stage. She made sure we had ah-ma-zing sound. She brought in stage and artist and tech support. My team here in Barry County hosted a beautiful top-notch event. Amber led the team that brought us an unforgettable music festival. Together, we created the Fair Ground Festival.
And to the *literal* dozens of people who gave of their time to make that day a success, THANK YOU. I don’t even know all of you. What I do know is that you showed up because you care about the cause or the music or the community or the people who asked you to show up. And that. is. amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you to all the people who shared photos and comments and feedback and promotion and support. Thank you to everyone who bought our festival merchandise. Thank you to everyone who bought a ticket. Thank you to the Flexfab DeCamp Foundation and Rhoades McKee PC and Barry County Lumber for believing in our mission enough to put their money behind it.
I am grateful, honored, in awe, in debt, amazed and exhausted by everything these volunteers gave to pull off a festival of this magnitude with a scant seven months of planning. More than anything, I am humbled. I had this one little idea. And this group of people took it and turned it into something more than I had any right to ask for. I cried when the music started Sunday afternoon. I cried with relief that the planning was over. I cried with joy that what we had created was truly beautiful. I cried that so many people came to experience the joy and beauty of live music with us. I cried that our vision came to life and more than 80 volunteers and 700 audience members saw that vision clearly enough to show up that day.
My mom came to the festival. My kids were there. My husband was there. All my closest friends were there. People that I never met and will never see again were there. People who believe in TAC, who believe in Barry County, who believe in female leadership, who believe in supporting women in music, who believe in performing art, who believe in inspiring the next generation of creatives . . . they were all there. They all got a little bit sunburned. They all got to experience a year of dreaming and seven hard months of planning and logistics. What I really hope for though, is that they all got to see the beauty of community. The magic of live music. The intangible thing that happens when a dream becomes a reality and that reality moves through cords and lyrics and drums and swaying bodies. I hope the people who convened that day were warmed as much by the radiance of human creativity as they were by the late summer sun. I hope they carry that warmth with them long past when their sun-kissed cheeks fade.
As usual, my verbosity regained its generally firm footing by the end of my heart’s outpour. As usual, I said everything that would come, and yet there was so much left unsaid not from lack of appreciation, but from lack of words that had not already been used.
Today is Wednesday. A full 48+ hours removed from the final note played and car packed. It took that much time and space for my brain — and maybe my body — to process all that happened and all who had a hand in it. If you felt moved to read this far, I hope you also feel moved by my gratitude and my hope and my awe.
Until next year.
Executive Director, Thornapple Arts Council