Paradise by the county fairgrounds: Over 200 artists to share their work at bi-annual arts fest in Northampton this weekend

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-25-2023 3:50 PM

The Paradise City Arts Festival, like so many other arts organizations, hit a road bump in 2020 and the spring of 2021, when the pandemic forced the longtime Northampton arts fest online for three straight sessions.

And when the Northampton festival did return live in the fall of 2021, it was with significant COVID protocols in place such as masks, proof of vaccination proof for visitors and artists, testing for staff, alongh with changes in the festival layout to allow more space between exhibit booths.

But that fall show proved pretty successful regardless, says festival co-founder and director Linda Post. And as the bi-annual festival returns this Memorial Day Weekend, just a year before the event will mark its 30th anniversary, Post says Paradise City remains on solid ground, with some 220 artists prepared to show their work this weekend.

“We actually had a really good turnout (in the fall of 2021),” Post said during a recent phone call. “I think people felt confident that we were taking care of them, and they were excited to be able to view so many different kinds of art in person after all the time we had in isolation.

“Things have felt more normal during the last two shows,” she said. “Attendance and sales have been good… It’s just so different when you’re able to go into a booth and talk to the artist who’s made this really beautiful object you’re interested in.”

Paradise City, which takes place May 27-29 at the Three County Fairgrounds, is a forum for a wide range of art, from painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and mixed media to functional art such as clothing, jewelry and furniture.

This year about 32 of the participating artists are from this general region, with many others from New England, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and a few from states such as Kentucky and North Carolina.

As in past festivals, that artwork is primarily showcased in three exhibit buildings, with some additional art arranged outside, including some large-scale sculptures, like giant metal animals, that are part of a “Sculpture Promenade” between the festival’s dining tent and the exhibit buildings.

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Another standby is a special theme-based show, which this year is titled “With Flying Colors!” As Post explains, the varied artwork that’s been chosen for the exhibit “is not based on shape or form or function. It’s based on color — the artists are using that as their primary tool for communicating.”

“Color can really prompt an emotional response?” she posited. “It’s such a direct way of drawing the eye and responding to the world around us.”

The rookie lineup

The festival’s juried process for choosing artists for the show, Post says, is designed to open space each time for new exhibitors or others who haven’t shown their work there for a time.

“We always want to introduce new artists,” she said. “There’s usually enough turnover from year to year to do that, between artists retiring or having other commitments, like someone who’s attending a kid’s graduation this weekend.”

One newcomer this year is Chris Bordenca, a Belchertown artist who specializes in acrylic still life paintings — but not the conventional kind.

Rather than bottles or cups placed on a countertop, or a vase of flowers or a plate of fruit, Bordenca offers colorful tableaus full of toys and action figures: plastic dinosaurs, robots, astronauts, Star Wars fighter jets and the like.

A graduate of the the University of Massachusetts Amherst who also studied at the New England School of Art & Design in Boston, Bordenca was a mural painter from 1998 and 2008 before taking up work as a graphic designer.

But he dove back into painting in 2018, concentrating on capturing some of the classic toys from his own childhood in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I wanted to paint what I was interested in, not something I was hired to do,” said Bordenca, who’s displayed his work at Amherst Town Hall and at Hope & Feathers Gallery in Amherst in the last few years.

He says one of the first things that caught his attention was a set of old action figure toys on his desk. Soon he was arranging them, as well as other materials he’d saved from when he was a kid, in elaborate settings as subjects for painting.

“It was another way of playing with toys,” he said with a laugh. “I had a blast.”

Another festival newcomer this spring — one Post is especially excited about — is Mucuy Bolles, a ceramist from Brattleboro, Vermont, who has an extensive background as a dancer and dance teacher.

Alongside her husband, Chris Makay, and her mother, Bolles also runs a Mayan Mexican restaurant in Brattleboro, and Bolles and Makay were James Beard 2017 semifinalists for Best Chef of the Northeast.

“And now she makes beautiful ceramics,” said Post, noting that Bolles’ work includes bowls, cups and vases, as well as some freestanding vessels as tall as five feet. Many are inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphics or non-clay materials, such as feathers and weaving.

On her website, Bolles, a native of Mexico, says she aims to infuse her work with the “mysterious playfulness of my Mayan ancestors” by creating pieces “where movement, sound, and culture merge into a balanced whole, and ancient knowledge can be reborn through a new vision in the present.”

Maine sculptor Andrea Mulcahy, also making her first visit to Paradise City, shapes her impressionistic metal sculptures by placing thin rods in a vise and bending them with her body strength. Later the rods are cut to length, smoothed on a grinding wheel, and placed and welded.

“They seem to move on their own,” said Post. Indeed, program notes say Mulcahy’s sculptures “present order and chaos as existing simultaneously, with one never triumphing over the other; they seem kinetic.”

Among the regional artists appearing at Paradise City this weekend are two other noted metal sculptors and festival veterans, James Kitchen and Matthew Johnson; pastel painter Donna Roy; furniture maker Ken Salem; woodblock printer Linda Mahoney; and photographer Joe Oliverio.

Along with a variety of food and live music, the festival will feature a silent auction of artwork, whose funds will go to Northampton’s International Language Institute.

“They do such an amazing job of helping new immigrants become part of the community, giving them the basic tools to get settled and maybe start a business or find their way in a new place,” said Post.

The Paradise City Arts Festival takes place at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $16 at the door for adults and $8 for students; children 12 and under are free.

For more information, or to order tickets online ($14 for adults), visit festivals.paradisecityarts.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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