Arts: Coming home

Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival celebrates 60 years of creativity and community

By David Templeton

When one of the North Bay’s most beloved, enduring, eccentric and characteristically “Marin” events turns 60 years old, there must be an enormous amount of pressure to really deliver something big, something different, something new.

Right?

“The opposite is true,” says Steven Bajor, executive director of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival (MVFAF), returning on September 17 and 18 to Old Mill Park for its sexagennial gathering of artists, musicians, food purveyors and redwood-loving revelers. “I think what we’re enjoying here is a real renaissance in community interest, and community involvement, in the event.”

Much of that interest, he says, is rooted in the small-town simplicity and throw-back charm of a gathering that, in many ways, defines what is special about Mill Valley, and what continues to be its alluring draw despite changes that, to some, have forever altered the nature of the town.

With nearly 150 artists displaying works that include handcrafted pottery, woodworking, jewelry, fashion, crafts, paintings, sculptures, prints and more, the event continues to attract people from all over the Bay Area. The music, too, is a major part of the event’s enduring popularity, a throwback to a time when local musicians gathered in the town square, residents could stroll the streets enjoying local artists’ paintings on display in shop windows, and then return to the square for more music.

“There was a time,” Bajor says, “for anyone growing up in Mill Valley, when there wasn’t ever a question of whether or not you played a musical instrument—but what musical instrument you played. It’s no surprise that so many good musicians grew up in the area, back in the ’60s and ’70s.”

According to Bajor, the recent influx of new folks to Mill Valley, drawn from the city by a promise of good schools and a higher quality of life, may have chased away old-timers with memories of a much more affordable, patently more bohemian and artsy population, but at least the new arrivals are showing an interest in becoming part of the fabric of the town. Keeping alive such historic institutions as the MVFAF—and keeping it the way it’s always been—Bajor suggests, has become a clear goal of a number of relatively new Mill Valley residents.

“We’re getting a lot of support,” he says. “A great number of things are being accomplished in the event’s 60th year, that are based on a whole new level of energy and enthusiasm.”

The entertainment at this year’s event, per tradition, will be divided into performances on the Main Stage, near the library, and a “Children’s Grove,” where magic, marionettes, youth-based choruses and something called “Octopretzel” will be keeping the kids amused. On the  Main Stage, the music will range from bluegrass and Americana to New Orleans and gypsy jazz, slack-key guitar, and good old Mill Valley rock ’n’ roll.

The location, tucked in and around a grove of towering redwoods, makes for an interesting set of challenges when figuring out where to put so many artists, musicians, visitors and food booths.

“It’s a very difficult site for artists to get into and get out of, that’s for sure,” says Bajor, “but the natural beauty of the redwoods gives it a real sense of home, and environmental atmosphere. That makes it all worth it.”

As a result of the kinds of changes he referred to earlier, Bajor says that the geographic picture of the attending artists is such that participants—many of whom once lived in the area but moved away—now come from all over for the weekend. While there are a number of longtime locals who still show up to display their work, a large number of artists, new and old, commute many miles for the chance to show off their talents against one of the most beautiful landscapes in the state.

“There’s a definite homecoming vibe for this event,” he says. “On the art level, definitely, but even more so on the community level. Folks know this is one of the few affordable annual arts events where they can come and see old friends, get caught up and share that social dynamic that makes it such a vital piece of being in community with others. And in this case, we get to do it in the context of art, and music, and food and beauty.”

The Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival runs Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18, at Old Mill Park, Throckmorton Ave. and Cascade Drive, Mill Valley; 10am to 5pm; $10 general; $5 seniors and students; free for children under 12; mvfaf.org.

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