Downtown Art Festival: Celebration of Expression

The busiest weekend of the year in downtown Gainesville involves 240 artists from across the U.S. and beyond, while attracting crowds in the tens of thousands. Artist Peter Carolin said he savors every minute of the two-day visual “feast.”

Peter Carolin with his Florida landscape paintings. (Photograph courtesy of Peter Carolin)

To Peter Carolin, the Downtown Festival & Art Show is more than just an endless stream of people checking out the latest works of regional and national artists. He sees the weekend as an unscripted stage spectacle of sights and sounds.

“The entire experience of the show to me is a circus of people all in motion, engaged in a ritual of ‘coming out,’ being themselves, and being in the moment socially, being seen, and seeing each other,” he said.

From his booth position (#123) on the northwest corner of Bo Diddley Plaza, the Gainesville-based landscape artist has become a keen observer of the entertainment on the stage behind him and the many other aspects of the show. He then paints a vivid picture of it all — in his mind.

“I listen to a beautiful singer, and the personality of that voice vibrates for a moment in my ears, and resonates in my soul,” Carolin said. “A man and a child jump up to dance a little jig. We are all expressing ourselves here, and attending to each other in every flavor and form. The people acting up onstage are equally smiling at the people acting up in the audience.

“A festival is a feast of everyone for everything: heart, mind, body, spirit and senses. It has the potential to feel like heaven.”

Carolin has displayed his huge paintings of Florida landscapes at the Downtown Festival & Art Show for more than 25 years. This will be the 36th annual show. It will take place Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on tree-lined downtown streets between City Hall and the Hippodrome Theatre.

This year’s Downtown Festival & Art Show poster depicts animal paintings by Gainesville-based folk artist Alyne Harris. Her signed posters, along with T-shirts, will be available for sale during the weekend at the festival’s Info Booth on University Avenue.

About 240 artists will compete for $20,000 in cash prizes and purchase awards during this year’s show. Two Best of Show winners will receive $2,000 each. This year’s judges are David Fithian, curator of art and exhibitions at the Museum of Art in DeLand, and Jane Hubbard Jennings, founding member of ArtHaus of Volusia and Flagler Counties.

This year’s artists come from as far away as California and Canada. One artist, Nancy Reyes Suarez, hails from Havana, Cuba. However, the vast majority are from Florida, including more than 50 from Alachua County. According to festival director Sunshine Andrei, at least 25 artists will be displaying their work at the Downtown Festival & Art Show for the first time.

The Downtown Festival & Art Show, presented by the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, will also feature continuous entertainment on four stages, street performers, a children’s Imagination Station, a Young Artist Courtyard and dozens of community organization booths. A new area this year will spotlight nonprofit groups affiliated with the 352arts campaign.

More than 20 food vendors will offer everything from frozen custard and funnel cakes to chicken on a stick and roasted corn on the cob.

A toddler checks out the balloon tower at the entrance to the kids’ Imagination Station during the 2016 Downtown Festival & Art Show.

“Of course, there can’t be a festival without food!” Carolin said. “Fifteen minutes after dancing, I see ballerinas in tutus and sneakers eating cotton candy and turkey legs, rejoined with Mom and Dad in the stream of life.”

Carolin sounds poetic when he describes the people who attend the festival.

“I watch expressions on the faces of people stopping with friends; rapidly making acquaintance, becoming reacquainted, as friends and families in a stream are constantly finding and losing each other, with such drama,” he said. “Some panic, lost in the crowd. Others, searching for a piece of inspiration among jewelry, fabrics, and masterpieces, doggedly drive to dodge a domineering or overly clingy partner, or relation by either rushing ahead or falling behind.”

Carolin, a Michigan native who received his MFA from UF in 1988, said he can’t help but become invested — if only momentarily — in the lives of those passing by his booth. In this regard, he views the Downtown Festival & Art Show an an allegory.

“There are those who get lost in festivals, trampled, smothered, and in hell,” he said. “They try it, but get claustrophobic, and hurry their way out. Especially those who feel already outcast by society. The hungry, lonely, dejected and the homeless are marginalized here, just as on an ordinary day.

Peter Carolin paints one of his coastal landscapes with his toes in the sand.

“Sometimes the most successful people financially — the doctors, bankers and investors — squint at the sun and scowl and want to get away. Rich or poor, everyone is not always in the healthy mood to exchange of themself, and to celebrate. Mother Teresa made a point to pick up the dying from the streets of India. I wish society could make more of an effort to pick up the living, and wash us clean in mind and body, that we may all feel invited and welcome at the fair.”

Carolin replenishes his soul while “on safari,” painting on location, beneath chattering eagles or amid crashing waves and gentle breezes. Earlier this week, he spent a cloudless day with brushes and canvas on the shores of Orange Lake in Marion County. Back in civilization, he must become “a landscape painting salesman” to make a living.

“I wish I could be more dignified, and less the charlatan,” he said. “These artworks represent all my experiences, and myself searching for meaning in life. When the day is over, I often feel ashamed to have laid my soul bare, and then tried to sell it. Some try to shelter the experience of communication/exchange in the solemn walls of an art gallery, but on the ‘street level’ there can be no better grounding. It is what it is.”

In the past three decades, Carolin said he has sold more than 500 paintings locally. He also has paintings in at least 20 states and nearly a dozen countries around the world.

A Florida landscape painting by Peter Carolin.

Around Gainesville, his paintings have been purchased by the Santa Fe College Library, UF/Shands, North Florida Regional Medical Center, Exactech, Naylor Publishing, Golder Associates, Caton & Taylor dentistry, The Ronald McDonald House, Holloway Financial, Johnston Chiropractic and others.

Carolin has taught at Santa Fe College and will be teaching again in the Florida Keys next spring.

He takes a philosophical view of selling his work to the public.

“Sharing with others means giving what was your possession and allowing it to become the property of someone else. It may be an expression of the most passing shallow whim, or the deepest, most lugubrious soul-searching. It may be an indescribable yearning, a wish, or desire,” he said.

“Art has a symbolic purpose, making something abstract into something concrete. It contains a little piece of oneself, given to another.”

Carolin invites everyone to stop by his booth, for a chat or perhaps to purchase his artwork, at the Downtown Festival & Art Show this weekend.

— Noel Leroux

For further info, including a complete list of participating artists and a map, visit the Downtown Festival & Art Show website.