Dowagiac Fine Arts Festival all about diversity

Published 10:39 am Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dancing Wheels is a professional, physically-integrated dance company uniting the talents of dancers with and without disabilities. They will perform at 7:30 p.m. on May 10 on the Dowagiac campus of Southwestern Michigan College. (Submitted photo)

Dancing Wheels is a professional, physically-integrated dance company uniting the talents of dancers with and without disabilities. They will perform at 7:30 p.m. on May 10 on the Dowagiac campus of Southwestern Michigan College. (Submitted photo)

DOWAGIAC — It started out 22 years ago as a one-author event, but Dowagiac’s Dogwood Fine Arts Festival has now grown into an 11-day affair with 14 different events. This year, the festival will begin on May 9 and continue through May 18 with performances, workshops and lectures scheduled to take place at venues throughout the city.

“We focus on a different part of the arts each day— literature, music, food, dance and so on,” explained Bobbie Jo Hartline, who has served in the role of festival secretary for the last 12 years. “There is a little bit of something for everyone.”

Born out of concern for the community, it has grown into an annual event that serves all sectors of the community.

“It started with an area teacher, someone at an area theater, and someone in the chamber of commerce getting together and asking, ‘What does our community need?’” Hartline recalled. “Many of our artists will work with kids in the schools during the day, and then do a family event in the evening.”

With its fame having spread throughout various artistic communities, the mission of Dogwood is well-known.

“When Dogwood calls, it’s often, ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard of you!’” Hartline said. “They already know our heart and our mission, and they seem to like and share it. The artists who come here want to pass along whatever caught their hearts on fire.”

Over the years, Dogwood has been visited by such famous authors as Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates. They have also hosted three winners of the prestigious culinary award named for James Beard. Several members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have also made appearances at the festival.

“When we throw a party, we don’t mess around!” Hartline said.

Word of mouth is also responsible for the ever-growing crowd that attends Dogwood’s various performances and events.

“So many of our patrons are regulars. They come one year, and then they bring a friend the next year because they enjoy it so much,” Hartline explained. “That, to me, is the greatest compliment.”

Each year, visiting artists, authors and performers are chosen through what Hartline called “a wish-list process.”

“Most of the committee work focuses on a wish list. It will be someone that they’re interested in or someone who’s been recommended by a member of the community,” Hartline explained. “Typically, we have really good taste, so many of our artists are very expensive. Sometimes, we’ll have to wait to bring one of them until we find the resources to do it.”

This year, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout will be delivering a lecture on May 9. She will also be present at a book-signing and author’s reception. An adaptation of her novel “Olive Kitteridge” will premier as a mini-series on HBO this fall.

Headliners will also include Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder, known for his top-10 hits with the Detroit Wheels, including “Devil with the Blue Dress” and “Sock It to Me, Baby.” He will be performing on May 17.

The art of dance will be represented by Dancing Wheels, who will perform on May 10. Founded by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, the first professional wheelchair dancer in the United States, Dancing Wheels is a professional dance company that unites the talents of dancers with and without disabilities.

Other artists include storyteller Kim Weitkamp and the chefs of Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Special events will include performances of plays by emerging playwrights and a unique event called “Art Comes to Tea.” The Lake Effect Winds will also perform a special concert for children: “Klassics for Kids.” Children’s artwork will be displayed at Dowagiac Union High School on May 15. A full schedule of events can be found at

Also taking place over the festival dates is the 24/7 art walk, “Up Front Art.” Twenty different pieces of art will be displayed throughout Dowagiac.

“You really can go there at 3 o’clock in the morning. The pieces are displayed in store windows, and we have a map with information. The locations are listed on the map, and information about the pieces is posted in the shop windows,” explained Hartline. “The pieces are also for sale, and you can also vote on your favorite.”

Visitors to Dowagiac can also take advantage of this opportunity to view and appreciate the 15 public sculptures located throughout the town.

“Some people say we have more public sculptures per capita than anywhere else,” Hartline said. “They were all donated with private funds.”

All in all, the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival should provide a busy, fun and very artistic 11 days in Dowagiac this month.