It started as a protest to Mayfest. Local artists, led by clay worker Virginia Harrison, were tired of the high prices Mayfest charged its artists and its seeming disregard for local talent in favor of national.
In a festival that has come to define Tulsa, most of the artists present at Mayfest are from out of town, with a few local artists huddled together in an "Invitational Gallery."
So six years ago, on the same weekend as Mayfest, Harrison and other local artists gathered in her backyard and had a festival of their own, with sort of a combination zoo/carnival/gallery ambiance. They continued the tradition the next year, with the festival already gaining momentum.
In 2004, Harrison approached Michael Sager, who has been the sole commercial developer, creating what is known now as the Blue Dome District, and he agreed to let the artists have their festival in that area, along 1st Street, all the way to Detroit, and down Elgin up to 2nd Street. And it was there, in that year, that the Blue Dome Arts Festival was born.
"I've always been involved in the arts, and when Virginia Harrison, Marjorie Atwood and Pam Hodges walked into my office and said they'd outgrown Virginia's backyard and did I think we could pull off an arts festival," said Sager, "I said, 'Let's do it,' and that was that."
The festival was 100 percent homegrown, he said, with just a few people fronting the money to put the entire thing together. In its third year, the festival's organizers decided to charge rent for the artists' booths, mostly to create order and give structure to an event that, in the past, had simply been about showing up and having fun.
Though the event is still about having fun and providing artists with a unique opportunity to show their work, organizers saw the need, as the festival grew, to instill some order and organization. And to find a way to pay for things like security and Port-a-Pottys, which don't come free.
Now, in its fourth year, that initial demonstration against the commercialization of Mayfest, that initial free-spirited retreat for starving artists, has turned into a viable enterprise all its own. Its organizers even admit to a peaceable working relationship with Mayfest -- sort of.
"They kind of just ignore us," said Karen Greenawalt, Publicity Chair for the festival's organizing committee and one of the artists present at the festival.
"We've tried to get along and do things that would work best for both of us," she said. "I guess you could call it a peaceful coexistence."
Sager, though, insists that the two festivals go hand-in-hand.
"They're 100 percent complementary," he said. "Mayfest simply can't take all the artists who want to be involved, so we're giving them an outlet, a place to go. I think it's absolutely perfect. Some people want to insist that there's all this competition between the two, but that simply isn't true. Mayfest has embraced us and even put us on their website."
The two festivals do kind of work to the benefit of one another rather than against each other. Being in walking distance of one another means festival-goers have the opportunity to experience twice as much in one weekend.
When they get tired of the chaos and crowds at Mayfest, people can wander over to the Blue Dome Arts Festival and feel at home with a family of artists in a more compact and relaxed atmosphere.
And when Blue Dome Festival visitors need a beer, they can head over to Mayfest.
And being just down the street from a pretty popular event means that people who don't know much about the Blue Dome Arts Festival may stumble upon it, increasing the foot traffic through the area. Greenawalt said that last year's numbers estimated about 300,000 guests to Mayfest and about half that to Blue Dome.
This year, the festival expects more than 200 artists to participate (more than Mayfest), showing work from a wide range of media, including ceramics, painting, glass, wood, metal, photography and textiles. Throughout the festival as well as on a stage set up in the middle of the area, visitors can expect entertainment like wine tasting from an Oklahoma winery, parades, belly dancing, musical acts, bag pipers, street performers and more.
With more than 200 artists present, you're sure to find just about any art imaginable. And since 200 artists are way too many to talk to for this story, UTW spoke with two.
Dennis R. Scott is a retired English teacher who has only been creating art for four years. Thinking he had no artistic ability, he was inspired by his twin brother, also an artist, to give it a shot. He creates giclee (zhee-CLAY) prints, high-resolution reproductions of digitally scanned or created artwork, which are printed on special large-format printers on any number of media, including canvas, watercolor paper and transparent acetates.
Scott's work includes brightly colored portraits, nudes and miscellaneous prints, in styles ranging from abstract to impressionist. He can spend up to 12 to 16 hours on one piece, creating it in Adobe Photoshop before making a giclee print.
"For me, the joy is in creating something that didn't exist before," Scott explained.
After he retired from teaching, he cared for a sick brother and mother before they both eventually passed away.
"After that, I just needed a break. It was sort of God-given," he said. "It gave me a lot of solace."
Scott said he enjoys the camaraderie he experiences with other artists, especially at the Blue Dome Festival. He's been participating in the festival for three years, introduced to it by a friend. During that first year, he showed up not quite knowing what to expect and was almost surprised, he said, to find that some of his pieces sold.
"It's interesting to find someone willing to pay money for something you've done," Scott said. "Money is hard to come by, and people work hard for it, so to have them willing to pay for something I've done is phenomenal."
He says Blue Dome is one of the best shows Tulsa has to offer local artists, and Richard Bohm, owner of Tulsa Stained Glass, 7976 E. 41st St., and Blue Dome exhibitor for four years, agrees.
"It's better than Mayfest," Bohm said. "It's a bunch of people who go out on the street corner and throw down their art. If you sell something, great, you make money. If not, you go home with it. It's like a spontaneous entrepreneurship. It's a very European style of doing an arts festival."
Bohm, though he'll have a few pieces of stained glass art for sale, is more focused this year on a project called Art Smart he's created for the Art Play Center, 7974 E. 41st St., a studio designed to teach kids about art.
"Art Smart" is an interactive play written for children five to 10-years-old to teach them about what art is. The actors encourage the audience to participate in various activities like doodling -- right and left-handed, with their eyes closed, with their feet -- to get everyone in the mood to create. Then they go into more technical details about how to actually go about creating art.
"It's about the therapeutic aspect of art," Bohm said, "that we should all just be creating. You learn how to doodle first, and, if you want to doodle better, then you go to school. The most important thing is to pick up the pencil."
Though the play was created for children at the Art Play Center, Bohm said he's sure children and adults will both enjoy it and feel inspired by it.
Outside of the 100 booths paid for by local artists is an Emerging Artists area, in the parking lot adjacent to the May Rooms Gallery, 328 E. 1st St.
The Emerging Artists Area is a free space for artists of all ages who have never exhibited work before to hunker down and be involved in the Blue Dome Arts Festival. The space is limited to first come, first serve, and artists must register at the Blue Dome (you really need an address? You can't miss it; it's on the corner of 2nd and Elgin).
Another event that has sort of become a part of the Blue Dome Arts Festival is the Living Arts Tulsa ArtCar Weekend, May 17 through 20.
ArtCars are sculptural works of art that can be driven and became popular in the 1960s. The biggest ArtCar event is in Houston, TX, but Living Arts has made ArtCars popular in Tulsa as well.
The weekend kicks off with a reception and exhibition at Liggett Studio, 314 S. Kenosha, on Thursday from 7 to 9pm. Visitors will welcome ArtCar makers and observe an exhibit called Outsider ArtCar Makers Artworks, which will be on display throughout the weekend.
The ArtCars will be at Blue Dome Saturday from 1 to 8pm, right in front of the Blue Dome itself. There will also be an Art BoxCar Parade for the kids -- at about 2:30pm, students who have created their own Art BoxCars (see guidelines at www.livingarts.org) will participate in a parade.
And Saturday night, from 8pm to 2am, is the ArtCar Party Thang, a concert with Milk Truck (the guys who created "Glowstick," performed recently at Nightingale Theater), Sam and the Stylees, Tribe of Souls and Jirhaff, with a special appearance by the performance artist Max Rada DaDa. All of this for only five bucks at the Road House, behind the Blue Dome Diner, 313 E. 2nd St.
Other ArtCar activities include trips to local schools, lunch at Mayfest, an appearance at Admiral Twin Drive-In and a convoy Saturday morning. For details, visit www.livingarts.org.
And there's more where that came from, folks. The entertainment lineup at Blue Dome has come a long way from that first year, when the festival's performers simply stood in the middle of the crowd and did their thing -- there wasn't even a stage to stand on.
Now, though, Blue Dome is equipped with a nice stage, sponsored by yours truly, Urban Tulsa Weekly, smack dab in the middle of the festival, with music each night.
Friday night's lineup begins at 5:30pm and includes Jane Lyon, the Gypsy Fire Dancers, Prairie Dawgs, and Tom Skinner and Gene Williams.
On Saturday, entertainment starts at 9:30am with St. Elmer's Fire, Threepenny Upright, Anderson Pipe Band, Black Jesus, Adelaide Slade, The Salsa Rhythm Project, George and Linda Barton, Swing Shift, The Neverly Hillbillies, GHQ Jazz Trio, Brian Haas and Josh Massad and Sam and the Stylees.
Sunday, beginning at 11am, enjoy Don Morris, Poets for Peace, Sparkplug and Rebecca Ungerman and the Frank Brown Trio.
The men from AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the largest and oldest American-based, Greek heritage grassroots membership organization, will be serving Greek food at the festival. All of the proceeds benefit the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
The festival is open Friday, May 18 from 6 to 9pm, Saturday, May 19 from 10am to 8pm and Saturday, May 20 from 11am to 4pm. Admission to Friday night's opening events is $25 and includes wine and hors d'oeuvres. Admission is free Saturday and Sunday.
Sager said he and the other festival committee members are happy with the growth they've seen in the last couple of years and hope to contain the festival to its current size, while continuing to "polish off the rough edges."
"We've already done that by providing more services, enhancing the music and enhancing the artists' experience," he said.
Some may worry that an independent, free-spirited venture like the Blue Dome Arts Festival could become more and more commercialized over the years, as Mayfest has. Greenawalt, though, said she doesn't think this will happen. She said the committee members are dedicated to ensuring that the festival maintains its integrity by not straying from basic, certain principles, like requiring that everything sold at the festival be made by the artist and that the artist be present. She said they're also trying to make sure that even the food sold is local.
"We're trying not to have gaudy hot dog vendors," she said.
But if you really have the craving, you can always go down the street.
Share this article: