‘Arts in the wild’

Two beloved community arts events return from pandemic hibernation this spring

The labyrinth at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. (Photo by Ken Smith)

This feature is part of the Chico News & Review’s 2022 Arts & Music special issue.

Imagine an evening spent watching steampunks and sprites frolicking among the trees at Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove; or how about sipping a margarita or three while perusing the work of local artists on the park-like grounds of a local church, topped off with a mindful walk through a sacred labyrinth?

These are a few of the experiences art-loving Chicoans can expect in coming months as two popular events return from the collective COVID coma that’s hampered gatherings for more than two years.

May 6-7, the Chico Visual Arts Alliance (ChiVAA) will launch the Chico Art Festival, a revamped version of the event that was formerly known as Art at the Matador and Arts Fiesta, but it will be at a new location—the St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church on Floral Avenue.

And in June, theater company Legacy Stage’s Shakespeare in the Park returns with a two-weekend production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, June 1-4 and 8-11. A driving force behind both events is breaking away from the confines of gallery and theater to deliver art to the community in non-traditional ways … think: arts in the wild.

Arts fest returns

While “the wild” may be a bit of a stretch to describe the immaculately manicured grounds of St. John’s, it does lie far from the beaten path of the city’s typical artistic institutions. Two members of ChiVAA—President Cynthia Sexton and the group’s public relations specialist, Dolores Mitchell—met the CN&R at the site recently (March 22) to share their plans.

The event will be centered around the church’s back parking lot, where more than 40 artists have already secured booths to exhibit and sell their works (space is still available). Nonprofit organizations will also set up informational booths and offer family-friendly activities, like face-painting by the Chico Community Ballet and hands-on lessons by the Mt. Lassen Fiber Guild. There will also be food, a bar, and a stage featuring live music and other performances.

ChiVAA publicist Dolores Mitchell and President Cynthia Sexton on site at St. John’s, where the outdoor Chico Art Festival will be held. (Photo by Ken Smith)

“It’s tucked way back off the main street [Floral Avenue] in this area that’s like a grove of trees,” Sexton said of the venue. “There’s a playground for children, picnic tables, and it’s really just a beautiful space that I don’t think a lot of people know about or have had a chance to visit.”

Sexton said the event will be all outdoors because of lingering and ever-changing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Mitchell noted the church’s buildings add to the venue’s artistic appeal.

“Several of the buildings were designed by Thomas Tarman, a very notable local architect,” she said. “He’s known for his work with wood and concrete, for respecting the colors and grain of woods, and his use of basic forms like circles and triangles, shapes we artists love and use, too.

“It’s nice to have that architectural element carry over from the Matador,” Mitchell said, referring to the rare Basque design of the Matador Motel, where the event was held previously.

ChiVAA’s annual event there ran for roughly a decade, and Sexton said it grew every year. Though COVID has kept it from happening the last two years, the festival has been on hiatus since an earlier disaster—it was canceled in 2019 as the motel served as a temporary home for a large number of Camp Fire survivors. After a few years’ break, Sexton said the group was eager to try a new venue.

Another unique element of the new location is a labyrinth located in a far corner of the church’s property. It is a flat gravel circle more than 50 feet in diameter, its perimeter and winding pathway delineated by smooth river rocks and smaller pieces of quartz. Walking such labyrinths is said to have meditative and energy-focusing benefits. A plaque indicates St. John’s labyrinth was built in 2017 as an Eagle Scout project by Alexander Stoner and is meant to represent the Stations of the Cross.

Live music performers for the two-day event include The Wrecktangles, Swing Set, Warren Haskell, the John Seid Trio and Leanne Cooley and her band.

A wide view of the scene at a previous spring arts festival at the Matador Motel. (Photo courtesy of ChiVAA)

In its previous incarnation, performers and special guests at the festival included fire dancers and “Mutant Cars”—post-apocalyptic-looking creations resembling vehicles from Mad Max films.

“We did get a little out there,” Sexton said with a giggle. “And we would like to again, now that we’re back, and want to keep this as an annual event. We’re always on the lookout for anything interesting, but this year we’re just happy to start it up again, get our feet wet and then see how it comes together.”

Gearing up for Shakespeare

There is a tradition dating back decades of the Bard’s works being performed in Bidwell Park, overseen by generations of local thespians and multiple theater companies. Shakespeare’s last appearance in the park was in 2019, when then-new company Legacy Stage produced Macbeth, with the intent of making Shakespeare in the Park an annual event. Then COVID came along.

Erin Horst, board president for Legacy Stage, poses in the Cedar Grove area of Bidwell Park, where she will direct a spring production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Photo by Ken Smith)

Legacy Stage is returning to the park in June with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play will be directed by Erin Horst, who is also a Legacy Stage co-founder and president of the theater company’s board of directors.

The troupe’s last show in the park was an ambitious and (literally) moving production, which took place at various locations around Cedar Grove and adjacent natural areas. Small audiences went with the players from location to location, lighting the action with handheld flashlights. The route covered roughly two miles and had attendees on their feet for roughly two hours, and any exertion did nothing to dampen praise for the event, which the CN&R described as “nothing short of a revelation—one of the most gratifying theatrical experiences.”

Horst said this year’s main setup will be more traditional but that overall there will be several elements making Legacy’s production completely unique.

“This time they’ll be sitting on blankets and chairs and the action will surround them and go through them,” Horst said. “As fun as the moving version was, it led to smaller audience sizes, and we want this to be accessible and easy for all to attend.”

Aside from the natural setting, Horst and company have other plans to set their production apart from other Midsummer Nights. Most notably, it will incorporate steampunk—a retro-futuristic sci-fi aesthetic big on gears, gadgets and goggles—into Shakespeare’s fantasy classic populated with wood nymphs and sprites. The era and locale are intentionally vague, and while all of the language will remain the same, the play will be shortened to better accommodate families with children. Horst said gender did not play a role in casting characters, making for an especially diverse company of players.

Horst says Legacy is still putting together the musical accompaniment. Violinist Alex Piasecki (whose day job is roasting beans at Stoble Coffee Roasters) will lead a small ensemble that may include other offbeat instrumentation, like harp and accordion. Much of the percussion will be provided by the cast.

A scene from Legacy Stage’s 2019 production of Macbeth in Bidwell Park, with Jami Witt Miller as Lady Macbeth. (Photo courtesy of Legacy Stage)

“[Alex] is working with me to craft the music to make it more like a soundtrack, to run through the performance and enhance the experience.”

Horst said she grew up attending the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City, Mo., and will take some cues from that event’s lively, immersive atmosphere.

“I don’t want to give away too much, but I want it to be an experience, not just a thing where people show up, take a seat and watch the show,” she said. “I want people to think this is the most fun they’ve ever had watching Shakespeare.

“It’s going to be playful, and joyful, and fun, like a party in the park.”

Coming this spring:
ChiVAA presents: Chico Art Festival, May 6, 4-8 p.m.; May 7, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, 2341 Floral Ave.
For booth availability, email info@Chivaa.org

Legacy Stage presents: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, June 1-4 and 8-11, Cedar Grove, Bidwell Park
Tickets on sale now

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