Recap: Fun at the LEAF Festival

Dabney Smith is a teacher in Caldwell County and photographer for ArtsNow. Below is her first-person account and photos from the LEAF Festival, the biannual festival in Black Mountain produced by LEAF Community Arts, a non-profit organization in which all donations and festival profit goes towards music and arts education programming locally and globally.

From the moment I arrived at LEAF, or the Lake Eden Arts Festival, I felt peaceful, happy and relaxed. The stress of daily life lifts and floats away into the crisp, cool mountain air. Admittedly, I was a little nervous to attend a camping festival alone. But after the accomplishment of setting up my tent by myself I was ready to meet interesting folks, see inspiring art and boogie to great music.

Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lake Eden in Black Mountain is the picturesque home to the festival. The October festival is strategically scheduled at the peak of fall leaves changing colors, and spring was equally beautiful with bright magenta rhododendron in bloom. As a teenager I attended LEAF and was hooked. Almost twenty years later, I can still vividly remember sitting around that first campfire, overlooking the soft, feminine mountains and watching the moon reflection twinkle in the water of Lake Eden. The feeling you get at LEAF is special and magical, and this explains why this year was the 42nd iteration.

Throughout the weekend, young people could be spotted on stage with artists living out their goals and dreams in the arts. As an art educator myself, it’s so encouraging to see an organization like LEAF value the arts and the next generation of artists. Since 2004, the non-profit has served more than 45,000 youth in these programs.

Louisiana Bendolph, left, and Rita Mae Pettway of Gee's Bend Quilters.
Louisiana Bendolph, left, and Rita Mae Pettway of Gee’s Bend Quilters.

Walking around LEAF I saw so many skilled artists, artisans and craftsman all with unique, handmade treasures. One of the highlights was meeting some of the ladies of Gee’s Bend, a tiny, rural, African-American community in Alabama known for quilt making. Mostly the decedents of slaves, the people of Gee’s Bend have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-19th century.

Pushing the boundaries of traditional quilting, these quilts included bright colors and were expressive and unconventional. I spoke with Rita Mae Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph while they stitched alongside children who stopped by to participate. They love sharing their art work with others, especially children, and it has been passed down from generation to generation. I thought it was wonderful to see them sharing it with attendees of LEAF.

Another highlight of LEAF was all the music. Wherever you went, no matter what time of day or night, people were playing music. From my campsite neighbor on the guitar, to the Screaming’ J’s jamming out at their painted van, it was hard not to dance the entire time. I loved meeting the fun and energetic hip-hop group Viva La Hop from Boston. They promised to bring the funk and they delivered!

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Chatting with Cary Ann Hearst during LEAF.

On Saturday night Juan De Marcos & the Afro-Cuban Allstars and the Legendary Salsero Pioneers warmed up the crowd (temperatures dipped into the 30s). On Sunday afternoon I chatted with Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope. Trent remembered coming to Boone years ago to the Boone Saloon. I remembered meeting them then, and they gave my friends and me relationship advice. This year, Hearst talked to me about how their lifestyle and music has changed since the birth of their 8-month-old daughter, Louisiana. When I told her I met another Louisiana earlier that day from Gee’s Bend, she was so surprised. “I’ve never met another Louisiana before,” she said.

A lyric from Shovels & Rope’s song, “Birmingham,” rang so true while at LEAF: “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make.” The people of LEAF, and the festival itself, are all about creating something beautiful for generations to come. See you in October.

Click the images below to see Smith’s photos from LEAF.

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