MOUNT DESERT — Finding a safe place to creatively express oneself can be difficult for a young artist, but the Summer Festival of the Arts (SFOA) has been providing that here for the last 40 years.
“These kids are really given the opportunity to be who they are,” said Weslea Sidon. She began teaching at the camp in 1989 and this year was the coordinator for apprentices, who are high school students assisting teachers. “The urge to create is in every one of them… For the most part, it frees them. They get to feel it and it feels good.”
Details of the formation and early years of the camp are a bit foggy.
Barbara Greenstone, who taught sixth grade at Pemetic Elementary School in the late 1970s to early ‘80s, recalls the starting point for the camp in the summer of 1979.
“If I remember correctly, we started the Summer Festival of the Arts with two weeks of music, drama and art activities and field trips and ended with a little show for the parents,” Greenstone said in an email. “For me, it was all about giving kids a safe place to explore the arts, try new things, discover their talents and maybe develop a lifelong passion.”
Students, teachers and directors, both past and present all echo that sentiment. Alex Newell Taylor, SFOA’s executive director, has participated every summer for the last 26 years and has worked as a theater teacher.
“I just have so much appreciation for this program,” she said. “It started me as an artist; started me as an arts educator. It gave me a reason to come to Maine every summer.”
When most people think of SFOA, they think of Kate Henry who became director in 1988 and built the program for the next 17 seasons until 2004.
Under her leadership, participation was for students going into first to eighth grade and took place over three weeks in July. Students were enrolled for the entire three weeks, some for only half-day, with a finale performance and art show on the ending weekend.
Each year on the Saturday that followed the camper finale, there was an artist showcase where the professional artists would perform and showcase their work for students and parents.
Campers who wanted to continue with SFOA could become apprentices, teacher assistants who help with the classes. Many of the apprentices have gone on to teach. Now there are students from the early years of SFOA who are sending their kids to the camp.
“At one point we got as big as 270 kids,” said Henry, who taught fiber arts before becoming the director. “That was a lot to manage in Southwest Harbor.”
This summer, attendance was closer to 103 campers, up from 97 a few years ago.
In addition to Greenstone’s focus on drama, Dick and Jan Ordway, as well as Wanda and Bill Whitener contributed their music teaching talents to the staff in the camp’s formative years.
“I was involved because I was a parent at the time,” Henry said. “I had a young student, Beau Lisy, and he was a drummer and knew then he wanted to be a musician. All of the theater and other arts were something to do when you weren’t playing music.”
The program was hosted by Harbor House beginning in 1981. It didn’t become an independent 501.c.3 nonprofit until the early 2000s.
Harbor House Executive Director Marty Lyons didn’t have any artistic background, so he recruited Henry. With a degree in fine arts as her base, she directed the camp from 1988 to 2004. She was the person who gave it the official moniker of Summer Festival of the Arts. Prior to that, the camp had simply gone by Festival of the Arts.
“I feel that the arts are something that develops personality, develops soul,” Henry said.
In the role of director, she had three main goals for the camp. She wanted classes taught by professional artists. She wanted a blend of students from around the island, as well as seasonal visitors. And she wanted classes in a large variety of arts disciplines.
In order to recruit a diverse group of students, she needed to arrange transportation for them, which is still available today with buses provided by the camp.
“When I was a kid, we took over Pemetic; took over Harbor House and St. John’s Church,” said Newell Taylor. She recalls sobbing at the conclusion of SFOA each year as a child. “We took over the town of Southwest Harbor. We just ran wild all over town.”
Propelled by construction at the elementary school and managing campers in three different buildings throughout downtown Southwest Harbor became too difficult. So in 2000, SFOA moved to Conners Emerson School.
In 2002, it moved to Mount Desert Island High School, where it was held until 2014. At that time it moved back to Conners Emerson from 2015 to 2017. This last season took place at MDIHS once again.
“We saw the joy of being in one central place,” said Henry. “The most fun was just being around artists. They included me in their lifestyle. It was a privilege.”
Children who enroll in SFOA have many artistic options to explore. Music, origami, live action role playing games, theater, painting, 3-D photography, videography and dance only scratch the surface of what has been offered over the last 40 seasons.
“My favorite thing to do during SFOA is to walk the halls. Even when I was a teacher I would find an excuse,” said Newell Taylor. “It’s all these different forms of art happening right next to each other.”
Matthew Hochman has been on the SFOA Board of Directors for four years but was never a camper. When he was asked to join the board, he jumped at the chance.
“I love seeing kids enjoying the arts,” he said. He was involved in drama at MDIHS as a student and now as a parent and is an active photographer. “I love seeing them explore their talents, be it acting, singing, dancing, painting, papercraft.
“I love seeing how proud the kids are of their product,” he continued. “When they show off their artwork, when they get off stage after a performance, you can see how much they enjoy doing it.”
As with any independent nonprofit, the journey of SFOA has been bumpy at times. Grant money from the Catherine Johnson Fund was the boost the program needed to get off the ground. The budget is a mix of program fees, grants and donations.
“The money it takes to run an arts program is just phenomenal,” said Henry who admitted to working year-round and at times unpaid to create a successful program. “How wonderful it is that it has survived through all of these evolutions.”
At the moment, the camp is not financially able to recruit professional artists to teach the campers. SFOA relies on the enthusiasm of budding artists and students of the program who have been apprentices to continue as teachers. But, admittedly, it is difficult to ask anyone to take three weeks off to work for little pay.
“We’re not paying our teaching artists what they are worth,” said Newell Taylor who also works year round on the camp. “Sometimes I don’t know how we pull this off. It’s a lot of times heroes who show up when you need them.”
Henry and Newell Taylor are two of a small handful of SFOA’s leaders in its 40-year history.
Jude Valentine took over from Henry and then Kyle Devale directed the camp until Frank Bachman became executive director. Bachman was with the camp until 2014 when Newell Taylor applied for and was granted a shot at the lead.
“I don’t know that something like this could successfully happen in another community,” said Newell Taylor who credits the influx of artists on the island and sense of community that supports the arts. “We get the kids who maybe they don’t feel comfortable at other camps … It is an artist camp.”
CORRECTION: Alahna Roach’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post. The Islander apologizes for the error.