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Marginal Arts Spreads Its Wings In Fifth Year

Visitors take in performance art during a previous festival.

by Gene Marrano

Slightly offbeat, eclectic and designed to be fun, the Marginal Arts Festival returns for a fifth year on February 16-21, at venues in downtown Roanoke and elsewhere. This year’s festival, which was originated by art teacher Brian Counihan and others at Community High School, will explore a different area of the valley each day and “focus on the cultural offerings to be found in and around that location,” according to a mission statement on the festival’s website,

There’s the parade with assorted motley types on Saturday, February 18 at noon, of course, always a highlight, but there is also art exhibition openings at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum on the Hollins University campus (Feb. 16), more art at the Olin Galley (Feb. 19) located at Roanoke College, and a festival-ending day of events in Grandin Village on Tuesday, February 21.

“We want to make sure that people understand that art is not just found in the museums and galleries downtown – art and performances belong everywhere the people are,” said Mim Young, who is handling publicity for the festival and overseeing the events in Grandin Village on the 21st.  There are some who won’t venture out of their suburban cocoons to come downtown for an art experience notes Young. No worries: “we’re going to come to where their cocoons are.”

The Marginal Arts Festival chicken is the event’s mascot of sorts.

There are even exhibitions at Ferrum College that are tied in to Marginal Arts this year. The Festival in part “is about pushing people beyond their comfort level,” said Young. Happenings slated for Grandin Village on February 21 include a spoken word event at Too Many Books, the dedication of a mural on an outside wall at CUPS coffeehouse and the first showing of a film, “Wanderlust,” at the Grandin Theatre.

Some have said that the Marginal Arts Festival, which tries to encompass as many local artists of different stripes as it can, should have been the “real” Roanoke Arts Festival, that ill-fated attempt to create a mini-Spoleto Festival in the fall. Despite kick starting the Roanoke event with some funding from City Council and a full time director, the Roanoke Arts Festival lacked focus, failed to identify the audience it sought and ultimately ground to a halt after several years.

Marginal Arts is much lower key and is staffed by volunteers. This year different people will take the lead for each day of the festival, pulling together the participating artists and support assistance needed. For an event that started off with several hundred attendees and activities based largely at Community High School in its former downtown location (the school now occupies the lower floor at the Big Lick Junction building on Campbell Avenue SE) its has grown to the point that last year 3-4000 showed up for Marginal Arts, according to Counihan.

“I think its still a good idea for the city to put on a festival,” said Counihan, who is also an adjunct curator at the Taubman Museum (there are Marginal events taking place there on the 18th.) “What we’re trying to do is identify the artists and creative people that don’t have an avenue in the city [to exhibit], to give them a chance to show what they can do.”

That’s where the marginal came from – looking for those artists on “the peripheries,” according to Counihan.  “They [often] have great ideas and are not normally able to go through a network or hierarchy before they are to get a chance to express what they can do.”

On the 18th, following the parade from Community High School’s home on Campbell Avenue at noon (all are welcome to take part) there is an absurdist carnival near the Taubman. At 3pm Community High School presents “The Frogs,” an ancient play written by Aristophanes.

Counihan bills it as a dialogue about place and identity. “We wanted to start with neighborhoods [taking part] that could pull it off. We were looking for …communities that were ready to go this year.” One of those communities is Old Southwest for example. On Monday. Feb. 20th The Water Heater will hold a coffee house discussion from 2-5pm on the arts.

That same day there is a Sweded Film Festival of homemade movies at the Shadowbox and something called “The World’s Longest Lover’s Telephone,” in Old Southwest. True to its name, Counihan hopes that some of Roanoke’s more marginalized communities will take part in future festivals.

The marginal arts or fringe festival concept is not new and is international; Counihan points to a similar event in Venice, Italy. See for a complete schedule of events for Roanoke’s own Marginal Arts Festival, which takes February 16-21. “Its not just about artists, but everyone who needs art to express who they are,” said Counihan.

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