NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Almost two years after the last festival, the Wickford Art Festival made its much anticipated return this past weekend as thousands descended upon Wilson Park, which served as the main venue, and Wickford Village to view and purchase art pieces in nearly all media by 170 artists from across the region and country.

This was the first time in the festival’s 59-year history that it wasn’t held in the village itself, but rather Wilson Park, with the decision to do so in order to keep with COVID guidelines at the time of planning while also allowing Wickford restaurants the space to continue outdoor dining. Artists and stands were set up in rows within the park, while Wickford businesses and restaurants welcomed passersby and traditional village staples like the First Baptist Church’s strawberry shortcake stand and kids corner remained. 

For some artists, such as Joanna Case of Mystic Clay Art in Mystic, Connecticut, the new venue choice was welcomed. 

“It’s a beautiful space,” Case said. “Before we were on the streets, which was hard with all of the traffic going by, but this is beautiful. I hope to do it again.”

As a potter, Case specializes in raku firing, 

For others, such as North Kingstown oil painter Sharon Smith, while she appreciated the compactness of this year’s setup, she said she preferred to stick with tradition.

“They like this, but they miss the town,” Smith said in regards to some of her friends and fellow artists from the community. 

All artists though were certainly in agreement that it was great to see the festival return and it had been sorely missed last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“For the artists and the consumers both, it’s real nice,” Connecticut-based painter Patrick M. Sweeney said. “It is great to see the shows again, to see your friends and clients as well. The people have been very receptive everywhere I’ve gone and I think people have missed venues like this.”

“Last year was not a fun time,” printmaker Michael Perry of MP Images in Attleboro, Massachusetts said. “I think it’s important to see other artists, to see other work, all the diversity and also to have a face-to-face conversation with another person. I think it’s critical.”

While the majority of artists came from New England, others traveled from different parts of the country, including woodworking artist Garland Farwell of South17 in York, Alabama who, despite the distance, is familiar with the area.

“I went to school in this region,” Farwell said. “I spent almost 10 years in Rhode Island and the New England area and I wanted a good excuse to come back. I started doing the festivals a few years ago and I heard about Wickford online and it looks like a great show, so I thought I’d try it. It’s a great show and it’s a great way to sort of visit old stomping grounds in Rhode Island.”

As an artist, Farwell specializes in woodworking pieces made out of recycled wood from old homes in Alabama. 

“All of the work is created from the brokedown houses of West Alabama,” Farwell said. “There’s a lot of decrepit houses along the country roads that are abandoned, so I just go in and grab what I need. Sometimes I’ll take a whole house apart, but usually it’s just a choice piece and I put it to a different use.”

Overall, Farwell said it’s the people that keep him coming back to the festival.

“Such friendly people,” Farwell said. “You think the only friendly people are down south, but Rhode Islanders are pretty damn friendly too.”

Millbury, Massachusetts-based painter Sumiyo Toribe seconded that notion. 

“I have participated in this show maybe three or four times and every time people are so nice,” Toribe said. “The organizers are super supportive and I really enjoy the location.”

A watercolor painter, Toribe specializes in landscapes of the New England wilderness, taking inspiration from photos she takes along the road as well as the springtime cherry blossoms of her native Japan and their vibrant colors to create her pieces.

For Robert Wertz of Igneous Rock Gallery Stone Fountains in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, it was a previous order that first brought him to town and brought the festival to his attention. 

“We sold a fountain to (an area couple) a couple of years ago and they live down on Pleasant Street and that’s how we learned about Wickford,” Wertz said. “When my wife came up with me to install that fountain we learned about the art show and then we came back the next year and this is our third art show.”

Wertz creates fountains out of 45 million year old colander lava that he purchased from a now-closed quarry in Washington state. 

“It was lava that pushed up to the surface so when it cooled, it rendered these colander spires,” Wertz said. “What’s unusual about this stone compared to other colander lava is it’s the most slender and colorful and curvy colander lava on the planet, and you can stand in one spot and see the whole thing at the quarry, there’s only a couple of acres of it.”

After building a good relationship with the quarry owner, Wertz was able to purchase the remaining colander lava spires and sculpts them into natural stone fountains.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Wertz said. “I like to provide the aesthetic focal point for people who work hard and have scarce moments to enjoy themselves in solitude or with the people they choose to be with, and to provide them something beautiful to look at in those elusive moments is a worthwhile thing. We all need to relax and it’s nice to have something beautiful to relax near.”

For more local artists, such as photographer Alexander Nesbitt of Alexander Nesbitt Photography in Newport, the festival allows him the opportunity to showcase some of his more Ocean State-themed pieces to a local audience.

“I’m not making super abstract work that I could take to California, I’m making work from Newport and people in Wickford and Rhode Island recognize Newport and it all works,” Nesbitt, who specializes in photography of the sites and sounds of Newport, said. “(They’re) like my people, so that’s what’s really neat about being here as opposed to a farther away art show.”

For Nesbitt, being able to share his work again in person is crucial.

“People need to see you,” Nesbitt said. “Sure you might be able to market on Instagram or something like that, but there’s nothing like when you make tangible things that you hold in your hand, for somebody to get that in their hand and sort of feel it, otherwise it’s not art right? It’s for the feeling of it, and so to be able to get out here in front of people again, it just makes all the difference.”

As a photographer, Nesbitt originally got his start doing solely travel photography from around the world, but in between trips, he found himself practicing his craft around Newport and soon came to a realization.

“I gradually realized ‘duh, Newport‘s a great place to take pictures’ and I ended up with this totally dual collection where it’s half sort of funky world travel and half Newport,” Nesbitt said. “A sort of documentary vision informed the shooting in Newport, so I wasn’t just going for sunsets particularly, I was trying to show it like it really is.”

As well as experimenting with photography, Nesbitt has also taken an interest in experimenting with the very medium his photos are printed on, including wooden blocks and, more recently, more tactile pieces such as aluminum sheets.

“During COVID, I modified my Epson printer so that I can run flat things through it and it was sort of a big engineering project and that’s allowed me to print on rigid aluminum plates with my own process and it’s just need to sort of do things that other people don’t have, but also support yourself into something that it’s a little more esoteric or like your own funky sauce,” Nesbitt said. “No more framing, not a lot of paper, we’re kind of going in this other direction now.”

Along with artists, food vendors including Del’s Lemonade, Newport Creamery, Gansett Poke and Kettle Corn Express, served up their fares at the festival, while organizations such as the North Kingstown Educational Foundation and the Friends of the Plum Beach Lighthouse Association set up booths within the park. 

The festival, as in previous years, also honored the Wickford Art Association Scholarship recipients, with three of the artists, photography winner Page Sullivan of Portsmouth High School, drawing winner Elizabeth Cowart of Cranston West High School and 3D/mixed media winner Ella Rose of Cranston West High School by giving them their own booth free of charge. 

For Cowart, who mainly works in graphite and charcoal drawings, winning the scholarship meant the most to her out of all of the competitions she entered because, in addition to the scholarship, it gave her the opportunity to exhibit and sell at the Wickford Art Festival. 

“I’ve never sold my art, so I put out everything I could, worked on more art, took photographs to sell and I’m just seeing what sells and if it’s something I can do in the future,” Cowart said. “I brought a lot of photographs of all around Rhode Island that I have and then I’m selling a few of my graphite and charcoal portraits and drawings that I have that are bigger. I’m selling stickers and crocheted keychains.”

For Sullivan, she said the scholarship and her subsequent treatment from the Wickford Art Association meant more because of how personal it felt. 

“A lot of them will just mail you a check, but this was a lot more involved,” Sullivan said. “We had an art gallery at the Wickford Art Association and then of course this opportunity has been great and they gave us a little care package of different supplies and everyone’s been so nice.”

A photographer mainly, Sullivan works in the surreal and magical, as well as astrophotography and said the opportunity to sell had been going well.

“I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk with a lot of different people and get some feedback about my work and it’s been really nice,” Sullivan said.

Similarly to Cowart and Sullivan, Rose said she liked the scholarship contest because it was different from a lot of the other offerings, especially the ability to sell at the festival for free.

“We have the opportunity to sell here for free, which is huge because the application process for getting a booth here is expensive and there’s a judging process they have to go through, and we didn’t really have to go through that, so this was a really awesome opportunity to bring art here and see what people like and see what I can sell in the future,” Rose said. 

On her pieces, Rose mainly does mixed media, but brought a couple other styles to the show as well. 

“I also have a few embroidered pieces,” Rose said. “I bought some figure drawings and I bought a couple of smaller paintings and drawings. I’ve been working a lot in mixed media paint and in charcoal lately.”

Overall, the festival was a welcome return for artists, patrons and the community alike.

“It’s really great to be back,” Case said.