Using wood, clay, glass, metal and oil, dozens of artists, including a jewelry maker from Louisiana, a painter from Indiana and a ceramicist from Ohio, will transform Decatur’s City Hall lawn into an outdoor gallery this weekend for the sixth annual River Clay Fine Arts Festival.
The event was created to bring a cultural, educational and economic boost to the city.
“We are bringing in people from all around. We’ve got artists coming in, staying in our hotel rooms and eating at our restaurants,” said Kim Mitchell with River Clay. “Along with the economic side, River Clay also helps with quality of life. To have someplace you can go to look at art with your family, that’s a great asset for the city.”
A cornerstone of downtown Decatur’s burgeoning arts’ economy alongside the Princess Theatre, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center, the Alabama Center for the Arts and the street murals, River Clay, a two-day fine arts festival which was canceled last year due to COVID, will take place Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“This is great for downtown. It’s such an exceptional weekend. There is the arts festival, 3rd Friday and events at the Alabama Center for the Arts,” said Rick Paler, executive director of the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority. “Just imagine what it will be like in 2023 when the 90-room hotel is complete in downtown. Artists can stay there (and) walk to the festival and restaurants.”
The festival, which in the past attracted 4,000 to 5,000 spectators a year, will feature 57 artists.
Among the festival’s new artists is metalworker and forger Bryan Johnson. The Decatur man, who retired three weeks ago as site manager at 3M for Hubbard & Drake, started experimenting with steel art five years ago at the age of 60.
“I had some heart issues. While I was recovering from that, my wife said that I needed a hobby. I’ve always been into mechanical and metalworking stuff, so this seemed like a good fit,” Johnson said.
Around Johnson’s backyard studio in Southeast Decatur there are axes made of wagon wheels, knives made from bandsaw blades and old tools, corkscrews made from spring steel and owl figurines made from horseshoes.
Johnson, whose introduction to forging began by watching YouTube videos, received his first anvil from his wife as a Christmas present. The present came with a request.
“My wife said, ‘OK, I’ll let you do this, but you’ve got to build me a pot rack.’ We now have a pot rack hanging in our kitchen. I really like it. It’s one of my favorite pieces,” Johnson said.
On average, he spends two to three hours a day in the studio, pressing, grinding, hammering, firing and shaping steel on his gas forge and coal forge, which can reach 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.
For River Clay, Johnson will display his triangles, figurines, pot racks, poker stands, axes, hatchets, knives made from Damascus steel, hammers and corkscrews.
“My signature items right now are corkscrews. Not only are they unique and one-of-a-kind, they actually work. I’ve tested every one of them,” said Johnson, who works under the name BVJ Forge and Metalwork.
Along with Johnson, local artists selected for River Clay include Rickie Higgins, Leigh Ann Hurst, Shawn Hayes, Joy Oettel, Johanna Littleton and Bonnie Hurst, all of Decatur; Theresa Clements, of Athens; and Kristi Hyde, an Atlanta jewelry designer formerly of Decatur.
Billed as a “come and do” event, the festival will include a children’s tent, student exhibits, artist demonstrations, chalk art competitions, food trucks and music by Decatur Heritage’s jazz band.
While artists will not begin setting up until Friday, the River Clay experience will start today as 3D artist Ivan Garcia, from Mexico, creates an interactive piece in front of the Alabama Center for the Arts on Second Avenue.
Garcia also will participate as one of the festival’s chalk artists along with Adam Stephenson, Chandler Hayes and Sonia Summers on Saturday and Sunday.
Chalk art also will take center stage at some area schools today. As part of River Clay’s River Chalk event, students will create chalk art creations of their schools' mascots. Participating schools are Walter Jackson, Hartselle High, Austin Middle, Eastwood Elementary, Falkville High, Austinville Elementary, Decatur Heritage, Decatur High, Oak Park Elementary and Frances Nungester Elementary.
“It’s a great way to advertise River Clay to the students and their families. It also gives the students an opportunity to experience a different form of art,” Mitchell said.
Beyond showcasing local, regional and national artists, the festival aims to encourage an appreciation of the arts and support arts education through the River Clay Fine Arts Foundation, which awarded $11,000 to visual arts teachers in Decatur City and Morgan County schools last year.
The awards funded the creation of a dye garden at Decatur High School, pedestals to display ceramic art at Austin High School and black lights for a fluorescent art lesson with art teacher Tammy Clark.
“The foundation is set up to support the arts in Decatur. It allows our art teachers to do some really cool things with art that they would otherwise not be able to do,” Mitchell said. “That’s what River Clay is all about, encouraging and supporting the arts.”
Tickets to the festival cost $5 for a weekend pass. Children 12 and younger enter free when accompanied by an adult. Spectators should bring a mask as some artists will require people to wear masks when entering their tent. The River Clay Rendezvous party on Friday, 5-9 p.m., will offer visitors a sneak peek at the artists’ creations. Tickets to the Rendezvous cost $50. For more information, visit riverclay.org.