Text by Pam Pietroforte | Photos by James Stark

Garden Street in downtown Visalia became the center of the universe on a recent Saturday in October — ordered chaos filled with beauty and wonder, a whirlwind of images and sound. More than 125 local artists, both recognized and emerging, lined the street with tents, creating a sea of white canvas tops. Beneath the canopies, their booths were filled with art to share with an overflowing crowd. On three stages, performers gave the audience a “taste” of the variety of entertainment found in the valley. Tempting smells from the trucks of local food vendors called out to passersby in a way that only a great slice of pizza, steaming hot coffee or BBQ ribs can. There’s a time to put away the cellphones, forget the unpaid bills, leave stress behind…. And what better time than at annual Taste the Arts street fair.

Taste the Arts is the largest art fair in the San Joaquin Valley, presented each year by the Arts Consortium, the official arts council of Tulare County. This year was the 10th anniversary celebration, with more than 7,000 in attendance – much larger than in previous years. What began a decade ago as a no-frills, seven-booth art show has become a major affair in the region. The event’s success can be attributed not only to the creative and diverse blend of talented artists who exhibit and sell their work, but also to the people of Tulare County who love art, community and the chance to submerge themselves in a world of artistic expression unmatched anywhere in the Central Valley.

From the gray shadow of the Garden Street Plaza building to the south to the historical landmark of the Old Lumberyard to the north, attendees took in the sights and sounds along the street. Artists exhibited a range of work, from hand-made jewelry and woodcarvings to art vessels and ceramics. “This area is known for the diverse crops it produces,” said Ampelio Mejia Perez, director of Taste the Arts. “This agricultural diversity also attracts a broad spectrum of cultures to our region. In the same respect, Taste the Arts creates a platform for artists to share their culture through their work.”

THE ARTISTS

Graphic designer and watercolor painter Tamara Elliot, winner of the 2019 Arts Consortium’s Watermark magazine cover contest, participated in the event. Her eye-catching cover explores the thematic images related to our geographical location in the state.

Mark Robinson’s carvings in granite won Best in Show. Statues reminiscent of ancient Tiki gods stood watch over his booth.

Tulare-Kings Writers represented the literary world with original books by local authors — every genre from mysteries and thrillers to books for children and young adults.

For those interested in experiencing making art for themselves, there were live demonstrations and opportunities for hands-on interaction.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS

Arts Consortium’s Artist of the Year, Andrew Kenefick, offered an “instrument petting zoo.” Here, adults and children alike could handle and learn about various musical instruments. Andrew started his music studio, Grace Note, to provide lessons to children and adults who aspire to be musicians.

Halonnah Sutton, a local art instructor and facilitator at the Arts Consortium’s My Voice Media Center, gave children demonstrations on making clay pinch pots that she later glazed and fired in the kiln at her studio. “When kids can put their hands in the clay, it’s a whole new experience for them — it gets their minds thinking what is art?” she said.

My Voice Media Center and Visalia Wellness Center encouraged attendees to take part in wellness activities at their Task Party booth.

Visalia Farmers Market had a food sculpture challenge. This is the one time you’re allowed to play with your food…and get away with it. Produce came alive with wild creations — from googly-eyed eggplant insects to crocodiles with toothpick smiles. Like some dream-like metamorphosis, they grew hands and legs and tentacles and antennae. You’ll never look at salad the same way again.

THE PERFORMERS

As if that wasn’t enough, three performance stages showcased local talent.

On the West Stage, headliner Andrew Kenefick’s band, Bigfoot and the Moon, performed original songs. Other acts showcased musical numbers that included Taiko Japanese-style drumming, bluegrass and mariachi.

The East Stage offered a variety of acts by Tulare County youth. Dance styles included hip-hop, tap and ballet, while vocal groups performed pop and rock. Taste the Arts volunteer Judy Burnett emceed the event and was impressed. “The kids were off the charts!” she said.

Over at the Lumberyard, the Urbanist Collective created its bold, urban art, painting the walls with colorful illustrations. Natalie Williams, one of the attendees, said the Urbanists were a favorite of her two teenagers. An artist herself, Natalie was grateful for “the opportunity to talk to local artists and hear the inspiration behind the art. It’s also a way to connect to the community in a really personal way.”

A fashion show created by students attending COS had an ’80s theme. Their entire semester of study leads up to designs made specifically for Taste the Arts.

THE FOOD

The food vendors were out in full force. So many choices to pick from! Four Seasons BBQ, Big Kahuna Hawaiian Shave Ice, Sequoia Brewing Company and more used only the best homegrown ingredients for delicious meals and snacks.

Garden Street has been released from its annual duty — it’s empty now, except for the cars and pedestrians. But once every year during October, it becomes the place to be — a portal to step through and find yourself lost in art, culture and the thriving community that is our valley.

In the words of writer Thomas Merton, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

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