By Terri Tabor

Daily Journal

The Gum Tree Arts Festival is one silver anniversary celebration that doesn’t require a nicely wrapped, white package of sterling.

In fact Tina Lutz, director of the event, says the best present one could give to the commemoration is themselves prepared to have a good time.

“It’s a lot of fun. There’s quality artwork, there’s going to be great food. It’s just going to be a fun two days out on the courthouse lawn and it’s just a celebration of the arts,” Lutz said.

Founded by Jim Westbrook and Bill Ford of Tupelo, the Gum Tree Arts Festival was started as a means to give Northeast Mississippians an avenue to experience original fine art as well as keep quality art in Tupelo.

“That was the motivation [behind it],” Westbrook said.

Since its beginning, Westbrook says the festival has doubled in size. A major spring attraction, the festival now welcomes more than 13,000 visitors to the downtown area and this year 97 artists representing 14 states will decorate the courthouse lawn.

“It’s the art,” Lutz simply pinpoints as the biggest attraction of the festival. Everything from watercolor and oil paintings to photography, sculpture, pottery, ceramics and jewelry will decorate the courthouse lawn this weekend.

This year exhibitors will compete for more than $15,000 in prize money. Awards include Merit awards in seven different categories, Purchase awards and the Best in Show award.

“It’s an extremely high quality show,” Lutz said.

All of the artwork featured are juried works selected by David Franks, a ceramic artist at Mississippi University for Women. “We go through a fairly lengthy jurying process of those slides,” Lutz said. “That is in an effort to maintain the highest quality art show as possible.” This year’s festival judges are Andrew Glasgow, assistant director of Blue Spiral 1 Gallery in Asheville, N.C., and Richard Mafong, the festival’s first Best in Show winner, who is a professor of jewelry at Georgia State University.

The festival benefits the Tupelo area in many ways, specifically establishing a wealth of art in the area through the Purchase Award program. Purchase Awards are works selected for awards chosen by festival jurors. Sponsors are attained for the purchase awards, who keep the artwork in Tupelo.

“In the past 25 years approximately $100,000 worth of artwork has been put back in residences and public facilities here because of the Purchase Award program,” Lutz said.

This year’s Purchase Awards totaling more than $8,000 are underwritten by the following sponsors: Peoples Bank and Trust; Bank of Mississippi; Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal; Deposit Guaranty; Trustmark National Bank; Reeds Department Store; Nash Plumbing Co.; John and Julia Blakey; Mr. and Mrs. Mark Ledbetter, WTVA; Union Planters Bank; Mitchell McNutt, Threadgill, Smith and Sams; Custom Glass Co.; Airfloat; Dr. Bruce Coleman; Mrs. Grace Dirlam; B & B Concrete Co.; Community Federal Savings Bank; Kevin and Sloan Hunter; Sanders Clinic for Women; North Mississippi Medical Center; and Sunflower Arts, DeAnne Pritchard.

Expanding its roots

In its beginnings, the Gum Tree Festival was created as a fine arts festival, but since has grown to incorporate more than just fine arts.

“This festival has grown in the capacity that it is including a lot of the arts and not just visual arts, and I think that makes it a special festival,” Lutz said.

Other festival highlights include the 20th Annual 10K Gum Tree Run, which is the largest of its kind in the state; a first old-fashioned street dance, the creative writing competition, the songwriting competition, children’s activities and Tupelo Community’s Theater production of “My Fair Lady.”

Reaching children

One of the festival’s goals is to promote art awareness in the schools of Tupelo and Lee County. For 11 years students have been a vital part of the festival through the youth art competition. Students submit artwork through their schools. The artwork is judged by professional artists, who select five judges choice awards in each grade, first through 12, and merit awards.

Lee Bryson, chairperson of the youth art competition, said there were hundreds of entries for this year’s competition. “[The students] are very stimulated by the idea of winning or placing in the competition,” she said. “It’s good recognition for the children.”

The youth art competition winners will be announced at 3 p.m. Sunday in an awards ceremony. Currently, the judges’ choice award pieces are on display at Savery’s Insurance on Main Street, and the Merit Awards are also on display throughout downtown business windows. “We have probably about 350 pieces of student artwork in the windows of downtown Tupelo right now,” Bryson said.

In addition to the children’s art competition, there will be ongoing children’s activities throughout the weekend including a children’s area sponsored by West Point television station WLOV, a Fox affiliate. The children’s area on Spring Street will stand out with Space Oddity, a 100-foot inflated three dimensional tetrahedron, in which children will decorate the inside. “That’s going to be wild,” Lutz said. “It is going to cover Spring Street.” Other children’s activities include storytelling, skits, face painting, balloon art and the Pied Piper Playhouse production of “A Tale of Sleeping Beauty.”

Gum Ball gets rolling

Gum Tree festivities will get under way tonight with the first Gum Ball at the Tupelo Artist Guild Gallery. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a silent auction featuring the works of Gum Tree artists. From 7:45- 8 p.m. there will be a live auction of two works, one by Tchula artist Saul Haymond and another by former Gum Tree best in show winner Charles Gatewood. At 8 p.m. the dance will begin. Lutz said Main Street. would be closed so that the dance can spill over into the street like an old-fashioned street dance. Tickets for the event are $15 and can be purchased by calling the TAG Gallery at 844-ARTS.

On Saturday the artists will display their crafts throughout the day while various entertainers perform on the music stage. One of Saturday’s highlights will be the songwriters competition in which the semifinalists perform their entries.

Barbara Morgan, a founder and coordinator of the songwriter’s festival, said this year they had 39 entries more than they’ve ever had to compete. Semifinalists include: Scott Hudson of Tupelo; Blair Combest of Germantown, Tenn.; Kenneth Ray West of Tupelo; Scott Angle of Hattiesburg; Closet Dog of Nettleton; Mark Magill of Blue Springs; Guy Hornbuckle of Tupelo; Bud Tower of New Orleans; Cathy Coggin of Tupelo; Plain Jane of Jackson; Scott Murry of Nashville, Tenn.; Anita Mayfield of Guntown; Thomas Murphy of Tupelo; and Jody Earnest of Nettleton. The competition will get under way at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and will be followed with a 4 p.m. performance by event judge Henry Gross, a Nashville recording artist and songwriter.

On Sunday the three winners of the songwriter’s contest will perform beginning at noon. The afternoon will be highlighted with award ceremonies for the Gum Tree Celebration of Writing Poetry and Short Story Contest, the Youth Art Competition and the art festival winners.

This year’s creative competition also drew more entries this year with more 300 entries. The entries were sent to New York where they were judged by professionals in the publishing business. The winners will be announced Sunday at a 1:30 p.m. ceremony at the Tupelo Artist Guild Gallery. Billy Jean Young, playwright and professor at Jackson State University will be the keynote speaker. Young won the Governor’s Award for the performing arts in 1995.

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