An Art-Filled Weekend
The Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival and Bennington Arts Weekend bring together artisans and admirers
By Kim J. Gifford
The warm sun was beating through the windows of my car as my friend Sheila—a fellow arts and crafts lover—and I hit the road for Bennington, Vermont, and the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival. This annual event has occurred in Bennington during the first weekend in August for five years. The crowning jewel of the annual, three-day Bennington Arts Weekend, the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival (put on by Craftproducers) is a vibrant event that draws locals and visitors alike to the gateway of Vermont.
I was familiar with this popular and historic craft festival, which is made of nearly 200 exhibitors. You can trace its roots back to Bennington and the first American Craft Council show in the late 60s and early 70s; more recently spending 35 years in Manchester. For many art lovers from all over Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, having the craft festival come back to Bennington after several decades away felt like coming full circle in celebrating the experience of the American crafts movement.
Since its return to Bennington, the town has embraced the spirit of the festival, making the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival an integral part of an eclectic, town-wide arts weekend featuring live music, fine arts and a craft beer competition. I decided it was time to see the event the festival has grown to become.
Downtown’s First Friday
Sheila and I arrived in Bennington late Friday afternoon, the first day of the Bennington Arts Weekend, and explored the quintessential downtown. We stopped at the Downtown Visitor Center, housed in a former blacksmith shop, to learn more about the arts weekend running in tandem with the art and craft festival. Hosted by a variety of entities including the Chamber, the Arts Council, the Downtown Alliance and countless businesses, we were immediately surprised by the numerous options. Soon we were directed to galleries like Madison Brewery, showcasing art and craft beer brewed in eyeshot of our table.
We spent the rest of the evening listening to “First Friday” performances while exploring Fiddlehead Gallery, a retrofitted bank filled with paintings, textiles and sculptures; and Catbird Studio, featuring eclectic home decor. We were waylaid listening to jazz at South Street Café while sampling their tasty pastries, but found we still had time to take in a show by the Oldcastle Theater Company before heading out of town to Harwood Hill, a renovated motel featuring regional artwork in every room. “There’s art everywhere,” Sheila declared.
The Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival at Camelot Village
Saturday morning we eagerly drove to Camelot Village to be among the first shoppers to have our pick of goods at the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival, the epicenter of the weekend. We caught our breath as we crested a hill, awed by the magnificent view of the 306-foot Bennington Battle Monument miniaturized against the grandeur of Mount Anthony.
Arriving at the festival, we were immediately met with a flurry of activity. Riffs from a guitar playing an upbeat blues song tickled our ears, and the aromas of brewed espresso and freshly popped kettle corn wafted past our noses. Beneath one of the soaring white tents on the manicured field at Camelot Village, we saw colorful arrays of watercolors, inlaid mirrors, stained glass, finely woven baskets, handcrafted furniture and live demos from loom weaving to candlemaking.
Sheila had already discovered a potter throwing tiny pots for children, who in turn were running between the tent and the Vermont Arts Exchange bus, a mobile arts classroom where they created their own art. A Saratoga woman suggested Sheila check out a potter who mixed “moose mudpies” with his glazes for added luster. I was drawn to a display of silk scarves, in all sizes, that we could dip into colored baths to create our own designs. I spied a Raku potter, explaining this Japanese firing process, and spoke with a basket weaver who braided ash from trees on his own property to make large, elegant baskets. Nearby, a local searched for a vendor who sold her a pair of handcrafted shoes the year before. “I wore the others out!” she exclaimed.
4 Corners North Homebrew Festival
We completed our shopping at the festival by Saturday mid-day, left our car in Camelot Village’s ample parking lot and took a free shuttle to downtown. We hopped off at 4 Corners North with a specific place in mind.
“I’ve wanted to take a tour ever since the Obamas featured Bennington Pottery at the White House,” Sheila said as we walked toward Bennington Potters and the neighboring Hawkins House gift shop. But the handcrafted stoneware dishes weren’t the only reason we chose this stop.
After our tour of Bennington Potters, we went back on the street and found County Street was blocked off for the family-friendly homebrew competition. Although not a beer drinker, the sound of rockabilly music and the smell of barbecue drew me in. I was struck by the elaborate set pieces including a tap built into a refurbished lawnmower.
“This is craft of another sort,” I remarked to Sheila, who headed to the gate to pay the entrance fee and get a sampling glass. She was intent on trying the brewer promoting a chocolate stout paired with brownies and a sour beer made from Sour Patch Kids.
We stuck around to see which home-brewer would be declared the winner before hopping back on the shuttle and ending our Saturday happily exhausted.
Historic Bennington/Camelot Village
On Sunday, we decided to visit historic Bennington, taking a guided tour of The Old First Church and stopping at Robert Frost’s grave. We followed this with the Bennington Museum and a bag lunch below the impressive stone obelisk Battle of Bennington Monument.
As our trip and the arts weekend wound down, we returned to the Southern Vermont Art and Craft Festival in Camelot Village and found some Berkshire shoppers making last minute purchases of watercolors and distilled spirits. After seeing so many different artisans, I was struck by the broad definition of craft and the artisanal nature of this community. Whether it was a progressive live tattoo exhibit at the museum, home-brewers experimenting with new recipes or the welcome this town gave a festival of traditional artisans, the evolution of art in Bennington was far-reaching, pushing boundaries, changing perceptions and embracing artisans of all walks of life at the same time.
“The notion of art is much bigger than I thought,” I said to Sheila, who wholeheartedly agreed as we drove away. One thing was for sure, we couldn’t wait to see what’s new next year.