Breaking My St. James Curse

Leaves are falling, the air is cooler and crisper, and the ubiquitous, goodnaturedly derided aroma of pumpkin spice has begun to waft from homes and coffee shops alike. It’s fall in Louisville, Kentucky, and for many, that means one thing: St. James Art Fair. The fair was founded in 1957, and, love it or hate it, it is an event that has become deeply entrenched in Louisville’s identity.

“At first, it was to be an art exhibit only, although open to anyone wishing to enter an exhibit. The pictures were hung on a clothesline extending from tree to tree,” writes Marguerite Gifford regarding the fair’s humble origins in her 1966 history, “St. James Court in Retrospect.” The event has grown exponentially over the years and now spans an area of several square blocks, attracting artists from all over the country. This success, however, does have its drawbacks. Local artists, while still featured in the fair, have lost some opportunity as it has garnered more national attention, consequently diversifying the art on display but also undoubtedly raising prices of the pieces.

One response to the issue is the Louisville UnFair. This St. James alternative was founded in 1997 by Paul Harshaw and Greg Edwards and sits prominently behind MagBar (because what self-respecting Louisvillian actually calls it Magnolia Bar & Grill?) as a way to feature only local artists with work for sale at affordable prices. When it first began, there was a sense of dueling art fairs, but things have since settled into a copacetic, nearly symbiotic relationship. Both fairs feed and sustain the other, giving the average Louisville art appreciator even more opportunity to add to his or her collection, no matter the taste.

Now that some of the local history is out of the way, I can speak of some of my own. Since moving to Louisville in 1999, my family and I made St. James an annual must. Perhaps a dozen of my relatives would come from out of town to go, and after we’d made our purchases, we’d return home for a well-deserved, piping hot bowl of my Uncle Carl’s homemade chili. It was like a prelude to Thanksgiving. I tell you this to illustrate how much this art show can mean to Louisville families and how satisfying it was for me – after a seven year curse of being unable to attend – to return to St. James and check out UnFair for the first time, this time with my boyfriend and a friend.

Since it was completely new to me, UnFair held the most surprises. While positively microscopic when compared to the behemoth of St. James just a block away, UnFair contained more charm and quirk per capita than I thought possible. Pop culture references made by local artists were the most pervasive, but there was certainly a panoply of different art styles to be seen. I even found a reference to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” in a handsome, hand-crafted, sandworm-featuring spice rack. In a display of self-control that I did not know that I possessed, I did not buy it. It was quite reasonably priced at $35, and I regret it.

After taking in UnFair, I moved on to St. James. I knew what I was getting into here, and it was just like coming home. I had done it. I’d broken my St. James curse! There was ambient pan flute music, savory food and all manners of incredible art to enjoy. After finding myself a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, not even the intermittent drizzling could dampen my spirits. I found bonsai trees, hand-blown glass, art inspired by video games, portraits that paid homage to more classical styles of realism, art pieces crafted from old books, and modern fusions of art and science.

When it was time to leave, I rode the free TARC Zerobus – the route of which had been extended to accommodate the fair – off into the sunset. It was an exciting few hours, and I wouldn’t give up either fair for anything in the world. It seems that Louisville has charms as plentiful and beautiful as the pieces in both art fairs, and I for one, cannot wait to see what the future brings. VT