By Terri Tabor

Daily Journal

The Lee County Courthouse is the daily center for county business, but today and Sunday the building will be the center of attention for the 25th annual Gum Tree Festival.

Ninety-seven artists representing 14 states – competing for more than $13,000 in prize money – will decorate the courthouse lawn with a variety of works, ranging from pottery and sculpture to watercolor and oil paintings.

In the past, the festival has attracted more than 15,000 to downtown Tupelo, and this year festival director Tina Lutz is expecting an even bigger turnout. “It’s a very high-quality art festival. We’re expecting more people than ever due to the fact that it’s a 25th anniversary,” she said.

Started by Bill Ford and Jim Westbrook of Tupelo, the festival strives to give Northeast Mississippians an opportunity to experience and keep quality art in Tupelo.

Through the Purchase Award program, Lutz said nearly $100,000 worth of artwork has been put back into the city in public facilities, buildings or residences.

The National Weather Service is predicting a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms for this morning, then mostly cloudy skies with highs in the low 70s this afternoon. On Sunday, festivalgoers can expect sunny skies with the high near 75.

But rain or shine, Lutz says the festival will go on.

“We’re not using that four-letter word – rain’,” she said.

The Gum Tree Festival got rolling Friday evening with the first-ever Gum Ball. About 200 people were on hand for the event, which served as a fund-raiser for the Tupelo Artist Guild Gallery. The event began with a silent auction of works by Gum Tree artists, followed by a live auction of works by Tchula artist Saul Haymond and Charles Gatewood, a past Gum Tree best in show winner.

Tupelo band Blues Chillin’ set up outside the gallery on Main Street, where they entertained for an old-fashioned street dance.

“This has been a terrific way to kick off the Gum Tree Festival by having the Gum Ball this year,” Lutz said. “The artists were very generous in their donations, and we certainly appreciate their support and contributions to TAG.”

Festivities continue today with the annual 10K race that begins at 8:30 a.m. on Front Street. About 7 a.m., workers will begin blocking off the race route. Front Street from the Clark Street intersection at the City/County Building to Main Street will be closed for the run as well as Front Street from Main Street to Jefferson Street. Main Street at the Front Street intersection will close about 8 a.m. All streets along the race route will not be closed; however, officers will be on hand to direct traffic at intersections throughout the course.

Other festival street closings include Spring and Broadway streets, where food vendors will be located.

More of today’s highlights include children’s activities on Spring Street including a Pied Piper production of “A Tale Sleeping Beauty,” the Gum Tree Songwriters Festival, music by songwriter and Nashville recording artist Henry Gross and a matinee and evening performance of Tupelo Community Theater’s “My Fair Lady.”

Sunday will also feature children’s activities and entertainment as well as award presentations for the writing contest, art contests and Purchase Awards.

Click video to hear audio