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Festival Formation for Felicitations-

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Reflections on the Susquehanna Summer Solstice Fest- 2023- Brian Keeler

Creating a festival of the arts in a beautiful setting along the Susquehanna River has many challenges but many rewards also. This is just what a group of us have done over the past two years at French Azilum, PA and nearby towns in Bradford County, PA. We started from scratch, but the birthing process received a lot of support early on and has continued to engage volunteers as well as the Bradford County Regional Arts Council. Art galleries in New York's southern tier and in northeastern PA along with local buisnesses and foundations have helped out in a big way too by offering prize money for the plein air competiton and general funding.

Over 20 artists participated in the SSSF 2023- drawing their inspiration for plein air painting from the Susquehanna River and surrounding landscapes.

We just completed our second annual festival event (June 13 -18, 2023) and it was a notable improvement in a number of ways from the first festival. The weather gods smiled on us with more benevolence (it did rain a drizzle on a couple of days) but our organization was improved and we offered much more. A deep sense of accomplishment is part of the reward- and a deep breath of relaxation is taken when the event is done for another year. There were so many moving parts to coordinate that it seemed a daunting undertaking at times. But with generous friends helping out in many ways and tireless committee members along with volunteers it all came through.

There were wonderful expressions of thanks and appreciation from many who attended and participated. So we knew that the fest was having the desired benefit for the attendees. The music and dancing certainly were high points that are not quantified easily but apparent to those participating and listening. The contra dancing offered a renewal of the spirit of the late Jehile Kerhuff, a blind fiddler from this area of Pennsylvania. This form of dance brings all ages and groups together in an inclusive celebration. The ballet demos performed offered yet another tradition and the swing dance classes still another.

Why do a fest? The answer is really a confluence of inspirations and goals. The Susquehanna Summer Solstice is an outgrowth of a canoe trip that first occured over the solstice of 1992 and was spearheaded by myself and the former president of the Afa Gallery in Scranton, Gary Grossman. My friend Danny Fassett, a native of Meshoppen, PA, who has lived in Groton, MA for many years has been on every river paddle trip and he's been on every zoom meeting for the new fest too. Dan has been indefatigable in his organizing and with his ability to gather musicians, speakers, authors and others that fit in with the event. Like Danny, others on the committee live elsewhere, but still feel a deep connection to our home towns and this region of Pennsylvania. The zoom meetings allowed our group from wide-flung geography to converse easily and plan the fest.

The SSSF is also a renewal of an arts fest that occurred at French Azilum for many years back in the 1970's up to the early 1990's. That art event had been discontinued and not active for quite a few years.

Other regional arts fests served as inspirations as they also brought various forms of arts together. Some of those included the COTA Festival in Delaware Water Gap, PA, The Finger Lakes Grass Roots Festival in Trumansburg, NY and several plein air events that I've participated in. Those plein air events were national level competitions, with a juried process for participation but with huge amounts of money involved in purchases and prizes. These plein air competitions were at Cape Ann, MA, Easton, MD and Wayne, PA. All were extremely well organized and operated. Our fest shares some of the qualities and content of these events- but ours is unique and special in a number of ways. Ours is smaller than all of the above but at once, it offers more too.

Linda and Frank Rump of Dushore, PA participated in the SSSF for the second year. They are shown here painting from the overlook at Wyalusing Rocks.

NOTE- Scroll down- to see a Youtube video of Frank and Linda during this session. Other SSSF artists are interviewed in videos too.

"Distant Rain- Kerrick Hill, PA" a 26" x 30" oil on linen painted by Brian Keeler during the SSSF.

Although celebrating the arts and community is at the heart of the fest- there is an equally important aspect- that being a voice for protecting the environment and honoring our history. I see all of these as supportive and integral to the fest. Not being disparate endeavors, but the arts, the environment and history are, to my way of thinking, all related and important. I view other artists' and authors' work as trailblazing in the effort to use the arts in the service of something higher. Such artists as Thomas Cole, John Audubon and others were well known for blending their art with a desire to protect and preserve flora and fauna. Previous examples of advocacy for the environment who come to mind would be the ancient Roman author, Pliny the Elder or even Cezanne. Cezanne would lament the industrial intrusions into his beloved landscapes. Many of the Hudson River School or George Catlin of Wilkes-Barre, PA were also interested in the America that they saw threatened by expansion and exploitation.

This year we had several speakers who augmented our credo by offering ideas and perspectives about the Susquehanna that are very likely not realized or appreciated by many. First, was our juror Rob Evans, an artist and curator from Wrightsville, PA. Rob has spent the better part of his career portraying the Susquehanna in his part of the state- (southern PA.) Rob informed us that the Susquehanna was really the genesis for many of the artists of the Hudson River School. The importance of the Susquehanna from a visual and cultural standpoint was greater than the Hudson in the early days of the 19th century. Rob has curated musuem shows, including one at the Robersom Museum in Binghamton on painters of the Susquehanna. The accompanying catalog, "Visions of the Susquehanna" is a remarkable record of these artists.

Authors and artists like Seamus McGraw, Victoria Switzer, Trebbe Johnson and Lyssa Fassett have been speakers at the SSSF. Their writings and efforts are focused mainly on protecting the environment or connecting with the spiritual aspects of the river, so they fit right in with the mission of SSSF. Seamus' book, "The End of Country" is a remarkable account of how the natural gas industry came to be a presence in Pennsylvania. Lawyers who stretch their vision to include environmental advocacy have addressed the core of our concerns. Jan Lokuta, a retired lawyer from Dupont. PA has spoken to our audience as has Diana Dakey. Diana is the facilitator of Protect Northern PA and therefore knowledgable and informed about the issues related to fracking and the proposed LNG plant near Wyalusing. Karen Edelstein has presented fascinating slide shows on her work in preserving the history and language of Native Americans in The Finger Lakes and northern Pennsylvania.

Shown above - Karen Edelstein gave a presentation at SSSF for the past two years on our Native American history.

So through the works of our current generation of artists who were invited to the fest, we are hoping through their art that awareness can be increased and appreciation gleaned for the river. We see the industrialization and environmental degradation of the northern region of the Susquehanna River in the past decade or so and we can only wonder what Cole or Pliny would think of this vast level of extractivism and loss of history and beauty. When we appreciate the beauty of French Azilum, we realize the fragility of this cultural and historical asset- as it could easily be the target of another fracking-related land grab- as happened near Wyalusing with the 265 acre LNG. Fortunately, that proposed plant is on hold for now, due to a legal challenge by the Sierra Club and others, and now there is hope of some type of reverasal.

Several of the musicians included in the fest have devoted their careers to being songsmiths in the service of environmental causes as well as voices for social justice. We think of the writings of Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and others and we realize that our performers like Joe Jencks and Don Shappelle are contemporary exponents of this lineage. To hear Joe Jencks sing with passion about his Irish ancestors and the trials of coexisting with native Americans was truly inspiring and uplifting. Joe is like a spiritual beacon lighting the way to all who listen to his music. He connects us all to our higher selves and reminds us that we all can make a difference for the good. Joe refers to Dr Martin Luther King and has a song about him that reminds us of the vision and dream of one of our country's spritual forces of benevolence. Don Shappelle has been crafting beautiful songs about the Susquehanna for decades and his efforts through his music are a welcomed addition to this effort.

Keeler and Jencks shown here after Keeler painted this oil study portrait of Joe- just prior to his performance at SSSF.

Felicitations was used in the title here, in the sense of well wishes and as it fit in with the alliteration. Fecundity was another option as it embodies the abundance of the arts and beauty in this area of Pennsylvania. So the aspiration of such a fest could be to embody and express the bounty of creative expression in a variety of arts with a beneficial outcome for all participating- as audience, listener, performer or facilitator.

The committee created events that would have appeal to a wide range of ages and lifesstyles on Father's Day was focused on - as there were a number of activites that Dads could do with their kids like nature walks, youth music and kite flying. With the help of many volunteers and friendly contributors we will now look forward to SSSF 2024. Join us!!

Brooks Eldredge- Martin is the SSSF committee chair. He organized the kite day and got voulunteers to spruce up the grounds. Brooks also coordinated the construction of the new stage and gallery.

I will close with a quote from a book that I just finished by Aaron Sachs a professor of American history at Cornell University. This book titled, "Up From the Deep" is a dual biography, comparing the lives and literature of Hermann Melville and Lewis Mumford.

"Only if people rediscover the old rituals that have served to broaden and deepen our humanity in troubled times- that connect us to past generations for the sake of future generations. Only if democratic participation involves embracing all "the small' life-promoting occasions for love" as Mumford put it in 1951, after two decades of work on the The Renewal of Life."

Then Sachs concludes-

" Not a day wthout nurturing or furthering life: without repairing some deficiency of love in our homes. our villages, our cities, withouth caring for a child, visiting the sick

The aspect of this passage that is relevant here- is connecting historical artists, environmentalists, poets, dancers, authors and muscians to the current generation so that future generations will be able to enjoy and continue the arts.

Whether it be connecting to the art and spirit of painters like Thomas Cole or to the writings of Dr Martin Luther King or the music American Jazz - we can see that through offering a fest for diverese forms of art- we can create a bridges so future generations can participate in music or painting and enjoy the beauty of the northern Susquehanna.

Volunteers Make SSSF possible. Stefan Poost, Chris Kim and Elizabeth Garofolo were among the helpers at this year's sssf.

The art of musicality and the music in art- Patricia Bellarose paints an oil of The Erin McLelland jazz band as they played on Friday night of the SSSF 2023.

Above- Brian Keeler and Dan Fassett at the end of the first SSSF!

Below- Links to video interviews of some of the artists at SSSF 2023

John McNally interview-

Susan Whiteman interview-

Patrick McPhee- Interview-

Simonne Roy Interview-

Clarence Spady painted by Patricia Belarose-

Brian Keeler paints an oil portrait of Jan Lokuta-

Brian Keeler paints an oil study of Joe Jencks-

Kerrick Hill Landscape- Brian Keeler

Frank and Linda Rump paint from Wyalusing Rocks Overlook-

Hsiao Pei Yang - Paints a landscape from Kerrick Hill-

Susan Begnini Landis- draws inspiration from the night-

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