Sometimes you don't know something's missing until it pops into place. The Pittsburgh Visionary Arts Festival feels that way. The inaugural version gathers at Schenley Plaza a few dozen local artists and artist collectives for three days of avant-garde, outsider or otherwise nonmainstream work that's got something to say.
Notwithstanding the familiar sight of white peaked display tents arrayed in neat rows across the Schenley green, the VAF immediately strikes you as different from any of the area's other outdoor arts displays. My first sight was of Connie Cantor's tent. On a big white cloth spread like a picnic blanket out front, a young man and a young woman were engaged in "Yoga With Pens." It's Cantor's latest experiment in instinctual doodling: The flexible pair, one a trained instructor, let the exercises tell them how to wield the colored markers grasped in fingers and toes. Anyone can play, by the way. (I tried, but be advised that sun salutations are not necessarily conducive to draftsmanship, even the most unselfconscious kind.)
Elsewhere: a tall table lamp whose post was crafted from a deer spine; a wall-mask fabricated from discarded little buckled straps, lashed together and painted matte black; Deanna Mance's crazily intricate large-scale ink drawings; Mike Budai's deceptively cute rock posters (and a couple of his racier take-offs on skin-mag photos); the politically radical silk screens of the Just Seeds Artists Cooperative; and Amir Rashid playing thumb piano before a tentful of his elegant found-object assemblages.
Meanwhile, veteran outsider-art collector Pat McArdle displayed work by Howard Finster, the Georgia preacher whose verbose images and naïve style helped launch the contemporary wave of appreciation for work by self-taught artists who make art with a purpose. Nearby, Kyle Ethan Fischer's unnerving sculptures – tortured human figures, flayed as if to their nerve endings – seemed alarmingly to erupt from the Oakland plaza's lush green grass. And around the corner, festival founder and organizer Alberto J. Almarza manned his own tent.
Sitting in his breezy corner tent, in front of his portraits of Walt Whitman, Nina Simone, Rachel Carson as a wood duck and "Rimbaud With Antlers," Bob Ziller noted that unlike many area fests, the VAF has little in the way of crafts. No clocks, mugs or even jewelery here. "It's much more arts-oriented than Three Rivers [Arts Festival]," Ziller said. "That it's local is great too."
Indeed, while many of the artists – from Ziller himself to Vanessa German, from Randie Snow to Encyclopedia Destructica – are familiar names on the gallery scene, there's something to be said from bringing them all together. And on a Saturday afternoon, this batch of local artists was drawing a steady stream of visitors – hopefully a few in the market for artwork, or at least enough of a turnout to warrant support for a future festival. (The Sprout Fund helped bankroll this one.)
The sense of community an event like the VAF can create was exemplified in the tent of artist and activist Jude Vachon. Its walls were hung with T-shirts reading "F**k Their Crisis." But Vachon was also soliciting people's ideas about how to address the global economic meltdown, which they were to write on scraps of cloth and hang up. "Reuse," said one. "Learn to Grow Your Food." "Is It Really A Crisis." "Live Life It Ain't Goin to Get Better." Vachon was stitching the suggestions into a quilt; I sat and talked with her for a few minutes about the upcoming G20 summit, the sort of conversation I can't recall having at any other arts festivals recently.
Pittsburgh Visionary Arts Festival continues Sat., Aug. 8, until 9 p.m. and concludes noon-9 p.m. Sun., Aug. 9. Both nights include 8 p.m. performances by experimental-music ensemble HiTEC.