For the past 18 years my wife and I have traveled the countryside like modern day gypsies.   We have attended juried art festivals, horse fairs, National Bison Association Shows, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Exhibitions (referred to as, hook and bullet shows), peddling our handmade leather goods which we craft at the Buffalo Billfold Company.

Many people go to an art festival once or twice each summer.  We attend these festivals most every weekend all summer and part of the winter months in the SouthWest.   It allows us to meet perhaps five or ten thousand people every weekend.  I admit that it causes us to have a little customer overload after this first few weeks.

As we pause and reflect over these past years we have come to realize that we have attended approximately fifty to sixty days of festivals each year.   When you multiply that by eighteen years,  you come to realize that this summer marks “1000  DAYS OF FESTIVALS!”   Is this something to be proud of?  or a sign of being stuck in a very serious rut?  We are humbled to have had the opportunity to exhibit at some of the top ten art festivals in the United States.

I have enjoyed understanding how each and every festival operates and how they produce revenue, advertise and promote their individual events.  I make concerted efforts to get to know most each and every festival organizer.   I have found this to be a curious journey because I have gleaned information from throughout the west, southwest and midwest.   Which festivals fund their events by using a gate fee,  which one has the most profitable beer garden, who has the best corporate sponsors, and which corporate sponsors are apt to been long term contributors and which sponsors to avoid if you are pursuing a long term festival relationship.   All of these questions can be answered by attending and getting to know each festival and their organizers.   Many of the concerns of festival building are similar, many are not.  Each festival is an event unto itself.

This information has been interesting to me.  I have compiled enough information over the years that I have been asked to share this information at various state and national level organizations.  It’s kind of a neat gig and it has allowed me to rub shoulders with some curious folks of national acclaim.

Lets get back to festivals!  Each fall we start applying to juried art festivals for the following year, trying to keep the bar high enough that we don’t end up on a street corner flea market.   We try to put together a cohesive schedule that allows to travel with some degree of prudent direction.   We start this process with a devil-may-care-attitude and wild ambition.

We are nearing the end of summer and we  realize that we have bit off more festivals than we can chew.   The end of summer “stretch”  is upon us.  We have traveled seven states in the past seven weeks.   Montana, Wyoming,North and South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota,  all of these art festivals have been hard work, yet enjoyable.   Most often we can enjoy a sunny afternoon (104-107 degree heat) or chance of rain (3 inches with the port-a- pots floating by).     We harbor no ill, our lifestyle dictates these bouts with nature.  We buck up and know that western South Dakota and a sprint to New Mexico are nothing more than one or two day drives.   Knowing that we have artist and musician friends that we will reconnect with, bouys our enthusiasm.  After the festivals are over for the day, we will spend the nights jamming and playing music with our artist and artisan family.  It’s a dreamy d& gritty world of hard work and trust.  Trust in the fact that few people will let you down.  Trust, in the fact that you will reconnect with those that appreciate your work  and you, appreciating them.

Our reconnection with our customers is paramount.   We love them, we need them and our mantra,…..we always keep our gratitude higher than our expectations.    If we work hard and have a good show, then we have to go home and work hard at production for the next show.   It is a vicious cycle and you have to feed the beast you create!

If I was a fine artist and sold a print  of my paintings, I would go and have a reprint made so I could sell another.  Alas, I am in the artisan catagory (leathersmith), when I sell a product, I have to work hard and make another product.

We travel with many different artists and artisans.   We travel together weeks at a time, much longer than I spend with my kindred friends in my own hometown.   We see artist friends in Arizona and then meet up again in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Minneapolis, MN.

As a mobile and transient art community we suffer thru all the same afflictions that a sedentary community encounters.  This year we celebrated births and deaths and many emotional turmoils….common to everyone, everywhere.

We cross all manner of social biomes.  One night we take our little motorhome into the fanciest of neighborhoods (World Bank board members) and the next night we are encamped under an interstate underpass….in “Bloods and Cripes” territory.   We fancy ourselves as  masters of public relations….where ever we travel.

Vacations become a matter of question, because we are  working hard AND having FUN on the road, perhaps we need some down time?   That time might be spent in our own community just going to work.  Work at home seems easier and much more predictable when you don’t have to take in the elements of nature and doing an outdoor festival.  Many times we have questioned our efforts when a tornado warning is being announced and we are holding on to our tent stakes.   The brick and mortar store front seems quite attractive.  We acknowledge our employees back home and how vital they are to our success.  They are held in highest regard.

We have built a solid repoire with our patrons at each and every show.  When we return the following year it is heartening to reacquaint.  The renewal of our friendship is not predicated on making another sale.  The extension of that friendship allows us to explore further into their lives and their community.

Though we are a bit weary and sliding into the last grips of summer/fall, it is a fun adventure that allows us to meet our customers and patrons.   The arts and humanities are not just idle words to us.   The arts and humanities are our life and our lifestyle.  Our gratitude is always higher than our expectations.

Bill Keitel

UnVarnished Essays

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