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Solstice Sun Salutations

Updated: Jun 27

Reflections on the Third Annual Susquehanna Summer Solstice Fest- Brian Keeler

We are doing some good things at the Susquehanna Summer Solstice Fest, (SSSF) as the feedback from the attendees, performers and artists all confirms. This being our third year we are getting most of the preliminaries moving much earlier and everything seems to be working more smoothly with each year.

In the background of each SSSF there are many workers doing the stuff that needs to be done.  Here are some who worked in the preparations and at the actual fest.  Brooks and Penni Eldredge-Martin,  Stefan Poost, Elaine Poost, Chris Poost,  Dan Fassett, Rich Henry, Abbie Adams,  Betsy Green, Jan Lokuta, Aimee O'Conner, Lou Pereyra, Mary Beth Voda,  Mike and Joan Hudyncia and Jessica Saviano. 

Above- The Methodist Church in Asylum Township, PA as portrayed in a plein air paintng by Brian Keeler. The church is just a short drive from French Azilum historic site. This 26" x 30" oil on linen was painted on the first day of the SSSF.

Above- Some of the artists and musicians gathered for the Meet and Greet event at French Azilum on Tuesday evening.

As our fund-raising is so important, we also started early with this year's capital campaign. The fest depends on local and regional support from businesses, individuals, galleries and foundations to make the event happen.  We started from scratch on the first year with the challenge of presenting a new kind of arts festival.  The term plein air painting is not one in common parlance so this lack of familiarity presented its own kind of challenge.   Blending music, art, authors, poets and environmental advocacy was at the core of the inception, kind of an earth day in June, on the Summer Solstice.

This year we reached our capacity of 30 artists, but due to some last minute cancellations the final tally was around 26.   Several artists have come for all three years.  The new artists came on board this year because they've been hearing positive things from their artist friends. And now we are attracting some of the top artists of the plein air circuit along with artists who are relatively new or complete newbies. The acceptance into the plein air event is open to the first 30 artists and it is a non-juried process. The final prizes are judged each year by a person selected for their knowledge and interest in art. This year Gil Willliams a collector from Binghamton, did the selection of winners.   Our total offering of over $4000 in prize money garnered through donations is a big part of the appeal.   Once the artists arrive, the beauty of The Susquehanna valley is appreciated as an incredible source of inspiration.  The uniqueness and beauty of the historic architecture of Towanda and Wyalusing is also mentioned by the artists. To our delight and surprise, the art sales have always been good, in fact, the sale of art has far surpassed the amount taken in from ticket sales.

Above- Four of the artists at this year's SSSF painting on Sunday morning at French Azilum during the "Quick- Draw" event. In this new addition to the fest the artists have 2 hours to complete a painting. Shown in the front is Tina Yanotti, then, Susan Begnini-Landis and Will Rothfuss,

All the artists paint with a focussed intensity during the week.  And there is camraderrie rather than competition amongst us. This makes for some great sharing of ideas and techniques along with friendship formations.   This also has been the case in other plein air events that I've been a participant. Even though I've been painting this area of Bradford County for my entire career,  I still see new motifs during the week.  That is part of the frustration, which is to say; seeing too much beauty with so little time.  Those subjects will be saved for another day. During the SSSF week I also returned to some of my favorite subjects. For example, I painted a canvas from Poplar Street in Towanda (shown below) with a view looking down toward the court house. I did a studio version of this same scene, perhaps 25 years ago as part of a residency at the Wyalusing Vallery Hight School- in Jeff Overman's class.

Above- A plein air painting of Towanda on Poplar Stree done during this year's SSSF. This painting is a 16" x 18" oil on linen on panel.

Above - The same view of Poplar Street in Towanda (as the above work) - but portrayed in Winter and with a more inclusive wider format. This large oil, now in a private collection was painted many years ago.


The SSSF committee meets monthly starting in September with numerous specialized committees meeting several times a month.  One of our goals this year was to focus more ardently on promotion.  We did this in a variety of ways, by putting several full-page ads in the regional papers and magazines of the area.  We also did national advertising with a full page ad in American Art Review magazine.  We reorganized our Facebook page and website to be more efficient and combined this with posters and rack cards.  Articles focusing various performers and aspects of the fest were also published throughout the spring to acquaint the public with all the moving parts of SSSF.

Each year we keep tweaking the music lineup.   With the input of one of our committee members, Aimee O'Conner, who is a branch manager at a local bank and an avid concert-goer, we pulled in several local bands upon her suggestion. The idea was to make the fest connect with locals so they'd feel the event to represent the region.   We also included performers that have international recognition along with decades of experience and a long history of recording and touring.  We presented an eclectic blend of genres - from local, regional and national bands .  This year the delightful Kate Taylor  was the headliner for SSSF and as she comes from a famous family including James Taylor, we presented some rock royalty. Kate had wonderful stories of her musical career and life inluding some memories of the Native Americans at her adopted home of Martha's Vineyard. And, of interest to me were recollections of her time living in a Teepee, which I also did along the Susquehanna one summer, circa 1980. Other SSSF performers this year who have toured internationally include Joe Crookston, Clarence Spady,  and Joe Jencks.  

The attendance increases each year.  Even with forecasts during this week's event of a near 100 degree heat index, the concert goers still came and the art lovers came out to see the exhibit.  Still,  the attendance is not what was hoped for, especially on Sunday. When such great talent is being shared to such small audiences it is indeed disappointing.   But it was said that part of the appeal of SSSF is the intimate nature and keeping it small is not necessarily a negative. The lovely narrative and optimism of Joe Jencks lyrics brings our spirits high as his soaring baritone vocals capitates us.    So during our occasional appraisals over the weekend we discussed topics and jotted down notes for improvements to be brought up in the post fest committee meetings.

In keeping with other years, the event brings  a showcase for youth in music.  On Sunday morning we started the day off with the stage open to several local young  musicians.  A puppet theatre was presented in the Wagon House too. 

The preparations for this year extended over many months with Brooks Eldredge- Martin spearheading many work bees and numerous other projects to get the French Azilum Historic site in better shape.  Adding electric service to the carriage house was one such project, so demonstrations  could take place there.  There were lots of ground improvements and paint jobs completed too.  This  year a big tent was added and a dance floor was added adjacent to the stage. 

The fest is inspired somewhat by other music festivals in the region and beyond but with our very unique approach of combining arts at a setting of historical significance. The COTA Fest at Delware Water Gap, PA comes to mind as another small-scale fest, but their weekend fest focused on jazz.  I participate as an organizer, artist, musician and even get some dancing in too. The week is at once exhilarating, exhausting, and inspiring.  This year there was also the added coincidence of the full moon and Solstice happening together,  There were some incredible skies and beautiful moonrises too. A torrential downpour at the end of Kate Taylor's performance and intermittent distant thunderstorms were welcomed for their respite from the sun and for their cooling winds.

On the past two years I've done two portraits during each fest as a way to share the art and process with the attendees and audience. This year many of the artists gathered around and watched through the entire portrait. So it is always rewarding to have an attentive audiene there with eagerness to learn. The portrait painting and involvement goes back many years for me at French Azilum perhaps to the 1970's and 1980's when I would aslo draw or paint portraits. I've wondered what the French Royalist who were residents there in the 1790's had in terms of artists. France was, of course, an art center in Europe in this era with many famous painters. Perhaps there was a portrait painter among the early colonists.

We offer a prize for best figurative work done during the weekend, so we all have the opportunity to paint people in various contexts. But the landscape and towns are really the main focus of all the artists' work. While painting the Methodist Church near French Azilum (shown at the top) and many of the other landscapes I appreciated these quintessential American scenes. Like this view of the beautiful white clapboard 19th century building, with a picket fence and American flags on the grave stones in wonderful dappled June morning light I found the timeless beauty of the scene quite captivating

Above- Painting a portrait demo at the third annual Susquehanna Summer Solstice Fest. The model is Mike Hudyncia, a retired science teacher from Towanda, PA. View two of the video recaps here.

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