Quality vs kitsch: Festival planner aims to elevate fi ne arts

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By M.V. Moorhead

If, like me, you spent a day meandering around the Tempe Festival of the Arts’ recent pre-holiday extravaganza, the paintings, prints and sculpture no doubt caught your eye.

But the overwhelming—again, to me at least— offerings of hats for dogs, neck pillows, customized road signs, microwave bowl-holders, vinyl LPs cut into images of rock stars, lavender body butter, key lime pie on a stick and all the kettle corn your teeth could take, once again seemed to be the main focus of what once was, actually, a real art show.

Now, don’t get me wrong—for me, this is all well and good. I’m there almost every year, and the gimmicks and trinkets (and food) are part of the fun—maybe even most of it. But if, unlike me, you’re a serious admirer of art or a serious artist hoping to sell to a similar devotee, the event might start to seem more like a Festival of Kitsch.

That’s where Thunderbird Artist Festivals come in. “Ours are strictly fine art shows,” says
Thunderbird CEO Judi Combs.

“By fine art I mean paintings, etchings, scratchboard, batiks, stone, copper and clay sculpture, bronze, alabaster, mixed media metal. Everything that’s considered fine art.”

And what won’t you find at a Thunderbird Artist festival?

“There are no clothing, hobby or bazaar-type things,” Combs says firmly. “It’s more like when you go into a gallery.”

This is partly because, according to Combs, “Artists have been used and abused” by bazaar-style festivals.

“Artists will travel a few states over,” she says, “having been told that (a festival) is fine art.”

But what the other vendors are trying to sell very well may be an often imported and/or manufactured craft that’s maybe $10.

Combs also notes that her shows are juried, with the artists going through a submission process that includes not only photos of the art itself, but of how the art will be displayed.

“The booth shot shows us the presentation,” explains Combs. “I’m looking for a very professional presentation. Even though we’re outside, we treat this as a gallery.”

Lest anyone doubt the personal nature of the business, however, when asked who oversees the jury process, Combs replies: “Pretty much myself and my daughter.”

Thus the featured work over the years has ranged from abstract to figurative, especially contemporary Western and cowboy.

A California native and longtime Zonie, Combs started the Valleywide festival series—the Gilbert edition this year was the same weekend as the Tempe Festival—in 1981, after her tour of duty as a stay-at-home mom.

“When my father passed on, I started taking my mother to classes,” she recalls. “I started to paint, and a hobby turned into a business.”

Indeed, it turned so thoroughly into a business that the landscape painting that got her started is now mostly a memory.

“I have no time to paint,” she admits. “My creativity now is in producing our TV commercials, or helping design our programs.”

But this side of the business has recently yielded some results of which Combs is proud. Thunderbird Artists recently won a number of AzTEC Awards (for Arizona Talent in Event Concepts), which are endorsed by the International Festival and Events Association.

“We’ve taken awards each year,” says Combs. “We’ve taken a gold for one of our (print) ads, a gold for one of our program covers, and a silver for one of our post cards we send out.”

The next Thunderbird Artists show will be the Scottsdale Waterfront event the weekend of Feb. 9-11, followed the next weekend, Feb. 16-18, to another show in Gilbert, which drew considerable praise at its inaugural run.

But if you’re looking for a hat for your dog, forget it.

Information: thunderbirdartists.com.

 

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