When you think county fair, what comes to mind? Corn dogs, cows, shiny new John Deere tractors? That’s what I thought, until I visited the Schuylkill County Fair in Summit Station, Pennsylvania.
The closest I’d been to a fair was reading Charlotte’s Web, but I decided a day at the fair would be fun for my animal-loving daughters. When my neighbor heard of our planned outing, she told us about her entries in the fair competitions. Since she always brought something delicious to church bake sales, I expected jars of preserves, fresh pies or maybe homemade dill pickles when we entered “her” building at the fair. I was amazed to see photographs, paintings and sculptures. An art gallery at the county fair?
Our neighbor was awarded several prizes for her paper art that year, and my family picked up a fair premium book – which includes the rules for entering – for our budding artists. The next year, after entering two pieces of handmade pottery and a charcoal drawing, my older daughter won two prizes. The year after that, my younger daughter won a photography prize. Living in an area where there aren’t many opportunities to exhibit art, my family now begins reading the premium book months before the fair rolls around.
Fairs in even the smallest communities offer wonderful opportunities for untrained dabblers of all ages. But there are also fine art and juried exhibitions at many larger fairs that attract the highest quality of art. These artists might be able to find a home for their work in established galleries, but family, jobs or, in the case of sculptor Dave Lane’s massive pieces, “the effort required to move these big things” keeps them closer to home. Although most compete in other shows and exhibit at galleries, the artists enjoy the friendly attitude at the fair. “It was a real pleasure,” says Christine Ramos of the California State Fair. “The staff and coordinators of the art program were very professional and personable, which is not always the case with art gallery owners.”
A venue known for giant pumpkins, chocolate cakes and tractor pulls may initially seem like an odd place for art, but many artists agree a fair has one thing most art galleries and competitions don’t have. Lane describes it as “potential for what can happen. At an average art show, maybe 300 folks make a special trip to see your work. At the fair, they tell me the doors open and close half a million times over two weeks, so perhaps 200,000 people will see your work. You have to have a piece there!”
Many fairs also provide “artist-at-work” demonstrations. Fair-goers had the chance to look over painter Earl Boley’s shoulder as he did plein air painting (in the open air) at his favorite spot – the California State Fair racetrack. Not only did visitors get to see the creation of art, Boley sold four of the six paintings created during the demonstrations.
Fair exhibits aren’t just for “traditional” art – paintings, drawings and sculpture. There are also regionally unique ethnic craft displays. For example, our local fair includes categories for Scherenschnitte (Sharon-sh-net), the German art of paper cutting; Pysanki (Pi-san-key), Ukrainian decoration of blown eggs using beeswax and dye; and palm work, the twisting of palm fronds into elaborate shapes practiced by many Eastern European Catholics just before Easter.
When you’ve finished your apple fritter, oohed and aahed over all the cute rabbits and goats, and laughed at all the entries in the decorated outhouse competition, stroll over to the art building. You might even see your work there next year.