Marginal Arts Veers From The Norm – Once Again

Blair Peyton (left) leads a tour of downtown galleries – past and present.
Blair Peyton (left) leads a tour of downtown galleries – past and present.

Created six years ago to celebrate art and artists around the fringes, the Marginal Arts Festival held on the last long weekend in March didn’t disappoint. There were downtown tours of art galleries defunct and still standing, poetry readings where the words to one piece was simply the word “rice” over and over again, a parade featuring giant heads and a sugar skull – and so forth.

Conceived by Community High School art teacher Brian Counihan and friends six years ago, perhaps as an antidote to the more establishment Roanoke Arts Festival that the city was trying to create (to no avail), the Marginal Arts Festival operates on a shoestring, relying on volunteers. Many appeared to be Community High School students, as did many supporters of the festival.

A “living & the dead art crawl” of current and defunct gallery spaces started from Community High School’s home on Campbell Avenue. It was led by Blair Peyton, a sometimes actor and creator of the “Tuned Out” web/TV show. He called for tour followers to “bow your head in remembrance” outside the former Pamela Jean Gallery across from the Taubman Museum.

At the former space on Market Street that housed the Gallery 108 co-op, the space had been reopened for a special exhibit. Both Gallery 108 and the Pamela Jean Gallery closed on their own terms, not due to economic conditions.

The former home to the Binaba shop (now Villages of Africa on Market), the spot where One Block East was located in the old Shenandoah Hotel (now the Roanoke Symphony office), the first home for Studios on the Square (above 202 Market) and the office space for the now-defunct Arts Council of the Blue Ridge were also on the tour. “What do you think this says about the Roanoke arts scene?” asked Peyton about the demise of the Arts Council, which for decades acted as an advocate for local artists and cultural organizations.

The living and the dead art crawl took off from the Liminal art gallery at Community High School, where overheated

Tif Robinette as a Circus Pony.
Tif Robinette as a Circus Pony.

sugar in a cotton candy machine made smoke detectors and an ear-piercing alarm go off. That prompted a visit from Roanoke City firefighters – some of whom stayed and posed with artist Tif Robinette. She was performing as part of artist Susan Jamison’s “Circus Pony” exhibit, wearing a paper mache horse head and a short dress with tights. Marginal indeed!

Counihan liked the “visual comparison” between the giant Easter Egg head he tried on two days before the all-comers parade and the sugar skull piece that would also be wheeled down the street during the parade. The Sugar Skull is a tradition in Mexico for the Day of the Dead, observed around the same time as Halloween. Counihan felt that “there was a lot more excitement around town than ever before,” as the Marginal Arts Festival kicked off on March 28.

The festival also included a workshops and a writing competition, where almost three dozen would-be authors took up the challenge of writing a 30,000 word minimum novel in just 48 hours, using Roanoke landmarks as part of the narrative, Two books were chosen by judge C.L. Bledsoe, an author himself, as the co-winners: Olchar Lindsann’s King Jaundice and Eric Earnhart’s Tunnel.

Earnhart, a former TV news anchor turned communications specialist for Carilion, had just finished a master’s degree in creative writing and had a concept in mind for Tunnel, dealing with a troubled veteran. The novel writing contest gave him the vehicle to try out his new degree. Both he and Lindsann were awarded $250; their just-published book was already on sale at the Marginal Art’s Vaudeville Night last weekend.

Josh Chapman, the director at Community High School, came up with the idea for the contest. He was bothered that there weren’t many books that mentioned Roanoke – and he set out to correct that. One of his students took part and actually completed a 30,000-word novel. Chapman – and Bledsoe, the judge – were pleasantly surprised by the quality. “I’d say there were probably 5 or 6 [novels] that with a small amount of cleaning could have been published,” said Chapman.

“Circus people and odd people kind of [band] together,” said Jamison, a visual artist, in explaining the Circus Pony exhibition she curated in the Liminal gallery space. “Artists are sort of the same way. We’re all sort of oddities in society. The Marginal Arts Festival is sort of a three-ring circus. There’s a lot going on all at once.”

By Gene Marrano