CEDAR FALLS — Thirty artist booths lined the sloping sidewalks in July 1978 on College Hill for a mid-week al fresco art show and sale. It wasn’t long before College Hill Arts Festival booths edged onto the green lawn on a corner of the University of Northern Iowa campus at 23rd and College streets.
Within five years, the festival was moved to the weekend to accommodate more artists and patron traffic. In 1983, well-known illustrator Gary Kelley began designing the annual poster — which he has continued to create for 35 consecutive years. In 1987, booths moved off of the sweltering sidewalks and completely under the trees at 23rd and College streets.
“I was around then, and I remember those booths on the sidewalks. It’s amazing how we’ve progressed and changed over the years. I can’t imagine doing that now — being on the sidewalks or in the street would be so uncomfortable for artists and patrons,” says co-chair Doug Johnson, who is in charge of the grounds and festival layout.
On Friday and Saturday, the 40th annual College Hill Arts Festival will once again set up an en plein air gallery at 23rd and College streets. Approximately 75 artists will exhibit and sell their original artwork in such categories as jewelry, sculpture, painting, pastel, ceramics, graphics/printmaking, mixed media, fiber, photography, glass and wood.
The event is from noon to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 to 5 p.m. Saturday on the University of Northern Iowa campus. There is no admission fee.
Johnson expects the weather to be “typical” for the season. “It’s supposed to heat up and be humid,” but on the shady green lawn, “you don’t notice it as much,” he points out. “The grounds look great. We’ve had just the right amount of rain and everything is greened up and looking good. The university is a great partner … everything is top notch.”
In 2013, the festival was moved from July to mid-June to take advantage of better weather and more people in town before vacations begin in earnest.
The annual volunteer-run festival is a signature event for Iowa and has been named one of the top 100 best fine arts and design shows in the U.S. for nearly a decade by Sunshine Artist magazine. Kelley’s posters promoting the festival have won numerous national awards and, in 2006, Cedar Valley Tourism Bureaus named it the event of the year.
Co-chair Mary-Sue Bartlett says being a juried show “ensures that the artwork is of the highest quality. We have a mix of returning and new artists from about 20 or so states. It’s a beautiful setting, and artists look forward to being here,” she says.
Artists are offered bed-and-breakfast options, free water during the festival, sack lunches, volunteers who allow artists to take a break, a hospitality room and a Friday night artists’ buffet. Friends of CHAF provide financial support through the Friends and Patrons programs. Artists are eligible for awards of excellence, and one artist will receive the $750 founders award honoring the late C. Hugh Pettersen. Pettersen founded the festival and chaired the event for the first 16 years.
A people’s choice award will be chosen by festivalgoers.
None of it would be possible without community support, Bartlett says. “The community has embraced the festival over the last 40 years. It’s become a tradition, and they’re proud of it. Local businesses provide their support and are part of the partnership. We’re still small enough that people can interact with the artists, which they love to do, and navigate all the booths.”
There will be food vendors and hands-on creative activities for children. The Young Collectors Gallery will be open for children ages 14 and younger, where they can purchase art for $10 or less provided by participating festival artists.
A variety of musical groups will entertain on the performing arts stage, including Josia Eden, Ally & the Gators, HMS Marimba Band and Karla Ruth on Friday, and Tim and the Tru Tones, UNI Suzuki School, The Enablers, the OK Factor and Orquesta Alto Maiz on Saturday.