Brian J. Sullivan
It had rained hard and steady throughout most of the night. Now, birds in a wild cacophony of chatter, announced daybreak long before the orange glow of the sun broke the horizon. The air had a clean fresh smell to it. Beads of water clung to the outside of my van; on the inside of the windshield, a steam-like mist coated it. I cleared an area of glass with the back of my hand as I left the hotel parking lot. City streets, lit from above by powerful lights, were devoid of any traffic. I glanced at the map and headed towards the art fair.
The city park, enveloped in darkness, stirred to life as artists' vehicles pulled off the main road into the park. Their headlights danced across the field in uneven jerks with each surface irregularity. Smaller beams of light from flashlights and lanterns jousted with each other. Anonymous people, illuminated by yellow reflective safety vests and waving red flashlights, directed traffic. A slight chill filled the air as the low laying fog drifted across the creek. The pre-dawn silence was broken by the sound of car doors opening and closing. Indistinguishable voices could be heard in the distance.
A large maple tree, uprooted, lay on its side. Snapped tree limbs, some the thickness of telephone poles and still partially attached, hung precariously downward. Fields, sodden with water, looked like miniature lakes behind the rows of white tents (set up the day before). Several canopies not able to withstand the violent thunderstorm lay in crumpled piles. I wondered to myself, did the artists heed the storm predictions and take the time to remove their work from their tents the night before? If not, they probably lost everything, since early spring storms are known to be quite intense. Last night's storm was no exception.
The fury continued with the sounds of metal tent poles colliding. People—sometimes alone, other times in teams—began the task of reassembling their tent/canopy. Most of the time words were never spoken. Each knew his role (after doing it hundreds of times). Occasionally a brief outburst could be heard as tempers flared. Canopies went up, side walls were hung, display panels were installed, and finally the art was placed. This was only the beginning. Then there was the area around and behind one's tent which needed to be constructed. This is where the tent-people would live for the next several days.
The first morning light revealed a clear blue sky. Grounds crews in four-wheeled ATV's were feverishly hauling bales of straw to the most water soaked areas in hopes of making them passable. Tree limbs and debris were cleared from the paths. Soon the gates would open and throngs of people would appear, and like a massive stampede, they would challenge the once sanguine and tranquil landscape.
At the artist hospitality tent, the smell of scrambled eggs, fried bacon, and pancakes filled the air. Lines formed at one end and continued out into the grassy area now covered in straw. Artists sitting in small groups discussed the storm damage. Others, sitting by themselves, were more concerned about getting their fill of hot food while there was still an adequate selection. Still others, like the nomadic Bedouins of the desert, worked in a concerted effort to secure their tent space. These little villages popped up behind each row of artists' booths. It included jugs of fresh water, dogs, babies, coolers, grills, blankets, extra stock, and even an occasional lawn chair. Clothes lines, strung between any available trees, served not only as clothes driers but also as privacy walls if large blankets were draped over them.
This area was sheltered from the public view by only a thin tent wall, yet it was a secret and sacred place far from the public's eyes. Entry into this world was gained only by passage through the back side of one's tent. Few privileged people would ever get to see or experience such a lifestyle. Once strangers, most tent-people quickly adapt to their surroundings and become friends with their neighbors. Adverse conditions only served to strengthen these bonds. This was not the first time they had weathered a storm, nor would it be their last.
Crowds thinned as closing time approached. Police teams on horseback cleared the remaining stragglers from the park. An eerie silence blanketed the fair area as darkness descended. Another exhausting three-day art festival had ended. It was now time to pack up. The area behind each tent was always the first to be disassembled. Coolers were emptied of any remaining water. Blankets were neatly folded. Clothes lines were carefully wound around a plastic holder to keep them tangle free. This was all done with the aid of a Coleman lantern.
Next to be packed in the van would be the art work and display panels. Each item had its own spot depending on the order in which it would need to come out at the next fair. Last to be packed was the tent and accompanying support poles.
A final gesture to departing artists consisted of a warm hug and sentiments for a safe journey. Few had dry eyes.
Then as quickly as they were assembled, these little communities disperse. They would move on to the next location only to repeat the process all over again. In each location they seemed to take their fate in stride.