ClydeFEST returns to Bynum for 20th anniversary

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BYNUM — For the first time since 2019, the Chatham Arts Council’s ClydeFEST will return to Bynum. It’s scheduled for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at the Bynum Ball Field inside Earl Thompson Park.

This year’s celebration will also mark ClydeFEST’s 20th anniversary — and for the first time since its inception, the kid’ arts carnival will be free to children of all ages. This week, we speak with Cheryl Chamblee, the Chatham Arts Council’s artistic director, about the carnival’s return, history and free admission, as well as what Chatham can expect from ClydeFEST this year.

Chamblee attended her first ClydeFEST in the spring of 2013, just six months after she’d taken the reins as executive director of the Chatham Arts Council. She immediately fell in love with the carnival’s “barn-raising atmosphere,” what she described as the Chatham community coming together to “make a beautiful thing happen for kids all over the county.”

“As Artistic Director of CAC, I get to work alongside a crew of amazing part-time staff and seriously dedicated long-time volunteers over many months to bring ClydeFEST to life,” she said. “Every time, it’s so hard. And every time, it’s so worth it. Seeing those small kiddos in those over-sized t-shirt smocks crouched down in the grass with their plywood penguin or snake or turtle, painting and glittering with absolute concentration while that blue spring sky gleams overhead — it gets me every time.”

Here’s what she had to say about this year’s ClydeFEST:

First things first: Chatham County hasn’t celebrated ClydeFEST since 2019, and this year is the festival’s 20th anniversary, no less. How does it feel to be able to celebrate ClydeFEST in person once again?

It’s a bizarre mix of feeling totally normal and not quite believing it. There was a time when any of us would’ve given our eyeteeth to be able to gather like this again, and I try to remember that when we do things now. I don’t want the gratitude and magic of it to fade. And there really is so much magic in an in-person ClydeFEST anyway!

What, if any, lingering COVID precautions or restrictions will be in place?

It’s a big help that the festival is completely outdoors. We’re shifting our usual face-painting to arm- and back-of-hand painting to create a little extra distance, and we’ll have plenty of hand sanitizer at spots all around the field. Anyone who feels safer in a mask is encouraged to wear one. Fluidity is the name of the game now, and we’ll make sure we’re following any guidelines that are in place at that time.

This year is the festival’s 20th anniversary. In light of that, can you tell us a bit more about the festival’s history and its place in Chatham County?

The early days of ClydeFEST were created as some sort of alchemy among Bynum Front Porch, Chatham Arts Council, and a group of special folks who decided to do something fun to honor folk artist Clyde Jones. From what I hear, the first few years were more along the lines of a mini Fearrington Folk Art Show, and it bounced around a bit from the Chatham County Fairgrounds to Shakori to a CAC space on Highway 64.

Around 2008 or so, ClydeFEST experienced a bit of a dip, and Bynum residents River Dukes and Diana Garside were working to reimagine it. They pulled in Stephan Meyers, who helped a slew of volunteers put the focus on the kids, where Clyde wanted it to be. Bynum residents welcomed the festival to the Bynum Ballfield, and with Stephan, Gilda McDaniel, Debbie Bousquet, and other ClydeFEST stalwarts pitching in, the crew focused on packing in as much art, learning, outdoors, and community feeling as possible. ClydeFEST’s identity as the most unique kids’ outdoor arts festival in the state coalesced. Parents and kids loved how the sweet fenced-in ballfield made for a safe place to let kids be free, and Clyde — on his iconic purple lawn mower — could escort festival-goers a few houses down to his yard, which was full of critters in all stages of completion. Now, at the 20th anniversary, Clyde’s house is more of a Clyde gallery he visits from time to time on outings from his home at The Laurels, but the focus of ClydeFEST is still about kids making art outside together.

As for the festival’s place in Chatham, it’s been observed that, while the mill established the Bynum community, Clyde and his Critters have been part of the glue that has held Bynum together in such a special way. Chatham newcomers may not know that Clyde has never sold his Critters; he has only ever given them away — to friends, to neighbors, to organizations that raise money for kids. There’s a spirit of community there of going against the grain to help create the kind of place you’d like to call home that feels very much a part of the unique identity of Chatham County.

What can we expect to see at this year’s festival? Does the Arts Council have anything special planned to commemorate the anniversary?

Gosh, even being able to pull off a ClydeFEST now feels wonderfully special! Folks can expect all the old favorites: Critter Cut-out painting in Critterville, lots and lots of booths where kids can make mini-folk art projects, performances by really talented folks from Chatham and beyond, Peter Loose and his giant tortoise, fabulous food trucks, Ubi making his balloon animals, Geoffrey with his bubbles — it’s going to be so much fun. And Clyde himself will be there, holding court. Especially for the 20th, Peter Loose will be creating a commemorative folk art piece that kids and grown-ups will participate in making before it’s auctioned off. A Clyde Jones original umbrella will be part of the auction for the first — and probably only time — too, so that’s pretty special. After the auction finale, we’ll celebrate with Paperhand Puppet Intervention leading us all in a little Bynum Ballfield parade. I can’t wait.

What are the Council’s hopes for this year’s festival?

Joy. Joy, joy, and more joy. That’s what we’re looking to bring this year. ClydeFEST has always aimed to bring kids and families together to make art outside in a super fun, kind of messy, everybody-can-do-this kind of way. Years ago, I talked about it as the antidote to the smartphone stare. One parent called it “the greatest analog thing I’ve seen for kids in a very long time” — and that was in 2016! Now, when kids (and kids at heart!) have been on the screens more than ever, when kids’ mental health is in crisis, when we’re still figuring out face-to-face connection again, I can’t wait to see kids’ grins while they run around and make stuff in that open space.

This year’s ClydeFEST is free to all for the first time ever. Why? What prompted the Arts Council to make that decision?

I’m so glad you asked this! It’s been a secret dream of ours to make ClydeFEST free for years now, and thanks to a whole pile of new and returning sponsors — especially naming sponsors The Jester Group at Baird — ClydeFEST is indeed free to all for the first time ever on our 20th Anniversary. The arts are critical to mental, emotional, and physical health, and we want to be a part of equitable access to the arts for all the kids in Chatham. It’s a huge part of what we do through Artists-in-Schools, ArtAssist for Kids, and Truck-and-Trailer Roving Performances — and we’re working to remove barriers to ClydeFEST participation, too.

This year’s ClydeFEST takes place on April 30, the same day as Chatham Partnership for Children’s Día de los Libros event. How, if at all, do you expect that to impact attendance?

Yes! We love Día de los Libros; we support it financially through our Grassroots Arts Grants. We try not to have them fall on the same day, but we’re making the most of it. We’re so excited to bring a little ClydeFEST spirit to Día de los Libros this year by giving out Critter Cut-outs and paints at our booth there. As for attendance, we hope folks will consider checking out both festivals. There’s time!

Anything else you want to add?

Three quick things:

• The auction is a silent auction this year, and it’s actually open online now. Folks can find it at 32auctions.com/clydefest22.

• We’ve still got open volunteer shifts, and we’d sure love to have you come on out to help. You can sign up on the CAC website (www.chathamartscouncil.org/clydefest-volunteer-registration/). It’ll be fun!

• We’re making parking easy! We’ve got a shuttle to and from Carolina Brewery, so make use of it!

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