The 863 Local FiArt Fest
By Meredith Jean Morris
The 863 and its surrounding counties are home to a bevy of local artistic talents, and on April 18, Winter Haven’s downtown park blocks will be filled with local artists showcasing their pieces from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In fact, The 863 Local FiArt Fest will be the first local art festival to entirely focus on the arts from a Polk County-centric perspective. Artists will only be accepted if they are from Polk County or a county that shares a border with Polk. It’s about 11 counties total.
The origin guidelines are refreshing to Lakeland artists Shawn Hennecy and James Meade, who have an arts business called Tree Fish Designs.
The couple, who design fish and other aquatic creatures entirely from palm tree materials, have experienced some disappointment when it comes to being accepted to local arts shows and events.
One instance in particular stands out in Hennecy’s mind.
“We submitted for it, and we didn’t get accepted,” she says of a well-respected local show. “Our friends and customers couldn’t believe it. We did go to visit the show, and were heartbroken when we realized it was mostly people from all around the state and from other states.
“We have spectacular local artists, and it’s nice to get the opportunity to have local people buying our artwork and learning about us,” Hennecy continues.
In the two years since Hennecy and Meade started creating their art, they have seen their business grow – mostly through local art shows and festivals.
“We’re all about growing,” says Hennecy, who works full time for Zephyrhills Water. “We would love to eventually have a storefront to sell from and make it our full-time business. But, we would still want to be part of local markets and art festivals — that’s where we meet our customers and get to know the community.”
Offering the opportunity for festivalgoers and potential art buyers to connect with locals is the goal of The 863 Local FiArt Fest, says event organizer and publisher of The 863 Magazine, Sergio Cruz.
“We want to bring people to a local area and let them see all of our talented local artists,” he says.
“When the people come in, they will see all of these local artists they didn’t know before. They could be neighbors and not know it.”
Affordability is also a highlight of the event, Cruz says.
“We want people to be able to bring home a piece,” he says. “This isn’t a show to just look around like it’s a museum. Instead, the pieces will be priced affordably, so people can have local art in their homes.”
The affordability factor will work, Cruz says, because of the low vendor costs.
“It’s a one-day show, and it’s local, so (the vendors) won’t have to stay overnight,” he says. “It’s the most affordable art festival, and offers awards for the artists.”
A professional with many years of experience in the arts will judge the show, awarding monetary prizes to the top three artists and five honorable mentions, Cruz says.
While the FiArt Festival is not new to Polk County, this year’s event will have some differences from years’ past.
“We started the event two years ago because the Fiat clientele is into making their cars their own, and we have always had very good marketing with the arts,” says event organizer Alex Mahalak, who owns Alfa Romeo FIAT of Winter Haven. “We had food trucks for the first time in Winter Haven, and we had about 1,000 people come out. This year will be good because we’re trying to do all local instead of having folks from all over the state.”
Aside from the local requirements, the upcoming show will be different in location.
“We held it on our car lot previously,” Mahalak says. “We are trying to change it up and keep it growing by having it downtown. I think we could have over 2,000 people come out since it’s an all-day event.”
During the all-day event, the artists will have plenty of time to interact with customers and help grow their fan-base.
“I enjoy being outdoors and being able to see the direct reactions of customers,” says Winter Haven’s Oz DeShaw, whose Evil Gnomes often bring a chuckle to those who appreciate garden gnome satire.
With a history working in movie special effects and for Central Florida theme parks, DeShaw began creating his naughty gnomes about three years ago, he says.
“I was never interested in collecting the typical garden gnome, they are cutesy, syrupy, too saccharine,” he says. “But these are really a play on those. It’s a satire of the gnomes’ cutesiness.”
When DeShaw started selling his foot-tall gnomes at local artisan markets in December 2014, he discovered that his typical customer ranged from 20s to 40s, and had an understanding of his creations.
“They are really toddlers playing as adults, reflective of what we were as kids — me and my brother,” he says. “I love talking to people about what they’ve done with them — creating a mushroom garden scene, putting them next to a laughing Buddha — or if they’ve given them as gifts.”
Participating in local markets like The 863 Local FiArt Fest gives DeShaw that opportunity to get to know his audience.
“It’s just nice to get to meet people face to face,” he says. “Letting local people know what we’re doing here and continuing to grow our name — that’s a good thing.”
The 863 Local FiArt Fest will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18 in Winter Haven’s Central Park. Artisans will likely include painters, photographers, sculptors, jewelers, potters, among others.
In addition to art vendors, the event will feature food trucks such as Taco Bus, and music performances, including the Florida Dance Theatre from Lakeland. To become a vendor call 863-258-3561 or visit CentralFloridaEventVendors.com.