By Mike Ironside
Assuming spring does eventually arrive in the Tri-States, one sure sign that Winter is behind us is the start of festival season, and as always, the season is ushered in by one of the best festivals around, DubuqueFest. This year marks a milestone for the venerable arts-based celebration. Held the third weekend of May, DubuqueFest Fine Arts Festival returns May 19-21 for its amazing 40th season, transforming Washington Park and Town Clock Plaza into an open-air celebration of the arts.
Hosted by the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society (DCFAS ) and sponsored by grants and generous support from the City of Dubuque, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Mediacom and Runde Auto Group, DubuqueFest offers something for everyone with the annual Art Fair, a free children’s “Creation Station” art tent, a book release by the Dubuque Area Writers Guild, three days of free concerts, and other fun, interactive arts experiences.
In addition to being the city’s first major downtown festival of the year, DubuqueFest is also the city’s oldest continuously running festival, as we noted, celebrating its 40th season of local culture. A rich mixture of long-held tradition and fresh innovation, DubuqueFest continues to entertain and inspire.
“It’s the 40th anniversary, so while we try to do new things every year, this year we’re definitely looking back at the history of our festival,” explains Dubuquefest Director Danielle Stowell, now in her third year at the helm. “One unique thing that we’ve never done before is… one of the front directors found big box full of old slides and negatives and prints and memorabilia from Dubuquefests of the past so we’ve been digitizing those and we’ve got artist from this year to donate pieces. So we’re creating baskets to raffle off this year. It’s really simple, any patron that would like a chance to take home one of the baskets can come to the info tent and make a freewill donation of any size and get a raffle ticket. Then if we draw their number at the end of the weekend, they get to take pieces of the festival home with them. Trying to honor the history while we do new things.”
“Last year the youth art sale on Sunday was a huge hit and the kids had so much fun so we’re definitely doing that again at the same time, noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, and we think we’ll have even more kids this year because everyone who participated last year asked if they can come back and do it again. We’re trying to teach them a little bit of entrepreneurial skills but also the fun of just being creative and sharing your work with the public,” says Stowell. “So once we start advertising that we expect even more kids to get involved.”
Kids K-8th grade can sign up to participate in the sale by signing up on the DubuqueFest website, dubuquefest.org.
Another first for this year is world music night.
“I don’t think we have a lot of world music often at the Town Clock so that’s going to be really fun for us,” notes Stowell. “We’ve got Irish music, which already is very popular in the Dubuque area featuring Ballyheigue and the Dubuque Fire Pipes and Drums, both local acts playing bagpipes, penny whistles, the bodhrán, fiddle, guitar, and more. The Marshalese community will be presenting recordings of traditional Marshalese music and that will be combined with the Facing Project, a national non-profit that connects people through stories to strengthen communities using the talent of local writers, artists, and actors. In Dubuque, a Clarke University Masters of Social Work student has brought together the BVM Sisters of Mount Carmel and individuals of the local Marshallese community to tell their stories. And there’s a book being published, coming to the week following Dubuquefest.”
“StellaRoma, a progressive world jazz combo from Minneapolis follows, which features a lot of percussion and unique instruments,” Stowell continues. “Then, the headliner for World Music Night is a salsa band from Des Moines called Parranderos Latin Combo, so that I hope that’s just going to be a huge dance party. They’re really lively and are going to play for about two hours so I’m really looking forward to that.”
With music as a mainstay of Dubuquefest fun, Saturday features a full bill of diverse musical offerings all day long on Saturday.
In the gazebo at Washington Park, The Fiddlers featuring local youth fiddle ensemble under the direction of Ann Duchow at 11 a.m. Then the Americana Band, an all-brass Dixieland and ragtime tunes group that has called Dubuque home for many years performs at noon. Finally, ACE, a due of singer/songwriters from Marion, Iowa round out the acoustic sessions to the Art Fair patrons at 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, under the Town Clock a huge slate of music starts at noon with the Dubuque Senior High Ensembles playing your favorite jazz renditions from the DSHS jazz band. The very fun Black Velvet Band follows at 2:30 p.m., touting themselves as “less popular than pop, softer than rock, happier than blues, not pure enough for folk, not flashy enough for bluegrass, and way too cheap for country,” with local indie folk rock journeymen Cranes + Vultures performing at 4 p.m. Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal bring and eclectic soul, funk, and R&B sound all the way from Lincoln, Nebraska at 5 p.m., kicking off the night’s great party.
Lexi Parr and the Rubyblonde Band have certainly been earning a name in the local music scene and you’ll get to see for yourself just how well the area’s premier dirty-southern styled rock band, based out of Galena, Illinois does their thang at 6:30. The ridiculously lovable and talented Indie-folk duo The Driftless Sisters take the stage at 8 p.m., featuring banjo, guitar, harmonica, and percussion, all from just two lovely ladies.
Finally, no it’s not a typo, GGOOLLDD will serve as the weekend headliner featuring fun, dancy, electronic pop out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You’ll want to bring your dancing shoes for sure.
With Sunday’s music focused solely in Washington Park, enjoy Mimi Ottavi’s ukulele tunes from 11 a.m., before Medicinal Purposes featuring Scott Guthrie and Pearl Breitbach, a local folk/blues/country duo who have just release their fantastic debut album play at noon.
Like last year, Jubeck New World Brewing will be creating a special brew for DubuqueFest which will be on tap at the opening of the festival on Friday afternoon for as long as it lasts, which might not be that long. And this year, the new local brew Düber will make an appearance at Dubuque Fest. Add in an IPA, a cider, and a dark beer selection from 7G Distributing and you’ve got a great selection for every taste.
And get this, beer lovers… for the first time ever, there will be a beer garden in Washington Park on Sunday! So just because the Town Clock site will be done on Sunday, you can still get a cold one while browsing the art!
To accompany the festivities, DubuqueFest always offers a variety of food vendors and beverage options.
“Magoos pizza has a new food truck and we’re excited to have them at the festival this year, we’re always looking for different cuisine options, not just the same fried festival fare,” Stowell reports, “so the Food Store crew is coming back again and is always a good healthier local option, we have a cool vendor out of the Quad Cities who is going to have all Asian on their menu, so that’ll be different and a lot of the same favorites that have been coming and have been expected for so many years now.”
“Art Fair coordinator, Rose Noble, comes with significant art fair experience, having managed Handmade City, an independent arts and crafts market hosted by the Figge Museum in Davenport,” explains Stowell, regarding the DubuqueFest Art Fair. “That indie art fair tended to be a lot of the less traditional arts, a lot of handmade crafts. So she comes from that sort of background anyway, so while we still have a lot of fine art, gorgeous photography, ceramics, painting and other arts that are a lot more high-end, we also are starting to bring in more of the hand-crafted, more affordable options that anyone walking through the art fair can find something they can afford, enjoy and take home with them. It could be purses, it could be soaps, it could be pet treats, anything like that. She’s more in touch with that kind of alternative artist theme.”
Stowell hopes that the range of available art makes the Art Fair more accessible to young collectors who might not be able to yet afford a more expensive piece of fine art but could afford a handmade folk art or fine craft piece.
It is, however, still a juried art fair and they have over 100 applications this year. Rose has invited 80 of those artists back to the festivals. While not expecting all 80 of those artists to make the show, it’ll still be a higher number than they’ve had in the past so there are definitely going to be new offerings there.
“We also like to give booth space to local non-profits that are arts related,” noted Stowell, “so for example Fountain of Youth is a new non-profit that works with local at-risk youth, perhaps kids that are going through the corrections system locally or at-risk of dropping out of school, they have a program where they work with the kids giving them hands on job training and skills as well as exposure to the arts so the booth that we’re giving them this year is for the photography project that they’re doing. That’s called Masterpieces on the Mississippi: Dubuque, Look at You Now. The kids have been documenting their lives in photography for the last few months and they’re going to develop these prints and even put together a calendar that’ll be for sale along with the prints. It’s a way to see Dubuque through these kids’ eyes, but it’s also photography and they’re learning the equipment and how to compose a good photo.“
Of course the kids’ art tent “Creation Station” returns, this year being managed by Green Iowa Americorp, engaging kids in interactive art activities that will embody a balance between creativity and sustainability. “One of the projects is that kids can paint flower pots and then they can plant seedlings that they can take home,” notes Stowell.
“My favorite part is that I get to work with so many people,” notes Danielle, “people I wouldn’t meet otherwise. So many local businesses, organizations and private citizens want to come and be a part of Dubuquefest and we want to give them whatever they’re asking for and if they want to help us out in any way we let them, and so I love getting to meet all of these people from across Dubuque and the Midwest.”
“We’re partnering with the Dubuque Museum of Art for this year’s Chalk the Walk on Saturday morning and a youth art group from Waterloo, They do chalk murals. So they will design the mural that’ll go in Town Clock Plaza and then anyone who shows up and wants to help will get a grid and an outline to fill in, so they can be part of a bigger mural project that will be seen for the weekend. Or they can go make their own and chalk anywhere they like in the plaza.”
In addition to new features like a live Plein Art Painting Demo and Improv Comedy and Tai Chi demonstrations, DubuqueFest continues to offer old favorites and more recently added features like yoga in Washington Park, group knitting, kids’ inflatable rides, wheel thrown pottery demonstrations, bike valet and safety check and more.
“We got so lucky with the weather last year. It’s was 75 and sunny everyday and it’s gonna do that again,” declares Stowell. “I can feel it!”
“If DubuqueFest is the one time of year we can get people to come see art, I’d love it if everybody could just be represented. It’s for anybody that wants to come down,” she said. “And you don’t have to be an artist, which is the fun thing. If you want to just walk around and try your hand at something, there’s no risk. It’s very laid-back.”
For more information, including an online Gallery of Artists, visit dubuquefest.org.