celebrating art + aaron douglas

The Aaron Douglas Art Fair (ADAF) was established in 2006 by the Topeka Turnaround Team, a non-profit organization committed to the enhancement and preservation of Central Topeka.  Responsible for such projects as the Washburn-Lane Parkway lighting project, College Hill redevelopment and community clean-up projects, the TTT started the ADAF to celebrate community art in the Aaron Douglas Park, located behind Dillon’s grocery store at 12th and Washburn/Lane. For seven years now the Art Fair has been held in the shadow of the mural which features a part of Douglas’ 1934 Works Progress Administration project mural, “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction.”

Douglas was born in Topeka in 1899 and graduated from Topeka High School. After receiving his B.A. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he moved to New York City, where he became, by matter of talent and timing, an important part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era that saw the growth of cultural works by African-Americans expressing their African heritage though art and literature.

Fast forward to 2012, a time when Topeka is becoming known for being an Arts Town. There has been steady growth throughout the decades, with a rich artistic history, but in recent years, with the establishment of the North Topeka Arts District, better known as NOTO and the ability of marketing techniques available to artists through the internet, we can say the arts scene has exploded in recent years. Again, through talent and timing, Topeka artists are able to take advantage of this art renaissance, and this time without leaving town.

The 2012 ADAF featured artist, Lisa Adame is a testament to the advantage of being an artist in Topeka right now. “Being named Aaron Douglas Art Fair’s featured artist has enabled me to meet artists in and around the Topeka area,” she says. “Last year was my first time showing my work to anyone other than family and close friends. It was a turning point for me because it helped build my confidence as an artist. ADAF was really the springboard that allowed me the opportunity to expand on my art and to move into the NOTO arts district with my own shop [The Scarlet Window] where I have the ability to show my art as well as other emerging artists. Had I not done ADAF last year I honestly don’t think I would be where I am right now professionally.”

Working in mixed media and acrylics, Adame is optimistic about the future of arts in Topeka. “… [W]e have a brilliant thriving energetic art community. There is SO much positive energy in Topeka. Every part of the city seems to have a place for artists to showcase and share their art. It didn’t just happen over night it really did take a village to build up our art community. Topeka is the place to be if you’re an artist!”

Photographer Jennifer Somers, has participated in the ADAF since its conception, and shares Adame’s enthusiasm for the ADAF. However, it may hit home a little closer for her. “I have lived in College Hill and Historic Old Town and am impressed by the Topeka Turnaround Team’s focus on improving Central Topeka and generating community involvement.” Somers has personally and professionally enjoyed the growth of the Topeka arts-scene. “I feel fortunate to have witnessed an explosion of the arts  in Topeka over the last several years while participating in ReThink Topeka and Think Big Topeka, and showing art Downtown, at NOTO and other locations in town. How awesome it is that we have a thriving Arts District in North Topeka, a highly attended First Friday Artwalk and a more lively downtown!”

Artist Laura Engelhardt, who has primarily worked in glass, has also participated in the ADAF since 2006. “It is consistently a well run and organized show. If that wasn’t enough, the booth price is very reasonable and they usually have coffee and donuts waiting for the artists at set up. The turnout is always good, rain or shine, and the artists … are top notch! Add good music into the mix and you can’t go wrong.  It is getting harder and harder to find a show where handmade goods are sold, so much of what you see is purchased wholesale and resold. ADAF is just a quality show.”

However, Engelhardt’s view of Topeka as an arts town is slightly tempered, “I worry about arts education for young people in Topeka, (what with the cutting of arts programs left and right…) but as far as an arts scene for adults, this town has come a long way from even a decade ago. I think the First Fridays art walks and the NOTO Arts district are amazing additions to the city.”

Engelhardt does find inspiration from other artists who are flourishing throughout the city. “I don’t feel directly inspired by things/objects/emotions. [I am] more inspired by the discussion of said things with other people. Interaction with creative, interesting and artistic people and an earnest exchange of ideas is better fuel than anything else I’ve found.”

Interact with these “creative, interesting and artistic people” yourself on Saturday, September 22 from 10a-5p at the Aaron Douglas Park on 12th Street between Washburn and Lane. In addition to artist booths, musical acts will be performing on the Main Stage, including Ellie Smith & the Commotion, Slow Ya Roll, Chris Aytes & the Good Ambition,  and The Orphans of Smooth Jazz.

The Legacy Stage will will feature local public figures reading pieces by Aaron Douglas and sharing the history of the Harlem Renaissance, storytelling by Kyler Carpenter, local jazz performers and more.

For additional details about ADAF, please visit their website.

[ Story by Rio Cervantes-Reed | Image by Lisa Adame, submitted ]


Read about the featured artist from the 2010 Aaron Douglas Art Fair.


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