On April 26th and 27th, Arts Walk once again came to Olympia. The event is a celebration of local art, community, and the spirit of Olympia. A section of downtown stretching roughly from Legion Way to 4th Avenue along Washington Street was shut down for the event. Crowds gathered to view various installations, paintings, sculpture, performances, concerts, and demonstrations.
Arts Walk is a fair, festival, parade, and many other types of gathering. Its influence became evident as soon as I crossed the bridge into downtown Olympia. The sound of a crowd a few blocks away was immediately discernible. As I walked down 4th Avenue towards the center of the event buskers, performers, and small stands selling goods began to pop up. On the corner where State turns onto 4th a small brass band was playing on the wooden walkway covering the water. Their instruments were festooned with signs encouraging peace and discouraging militarism, while they played a jaunty tune not out of place for a circus.
As I approached central downtown the noise become louder, the performances and displays grew more dense. When I turned onto Washington from 4th I reached roughly the epicenter of Arts Walk. Oddly, it was a sort of eye in the storm. Little seemed to be going on at the very center, with even pedestrians being somewhat scarce. This was likely indicative of the very nature of Arts Walk. It’s not a central “thing” that one goes to see, it is an excuse for the Olympia community to come together and share inspiration.
The vendor’s area was set up a little East of the main Arts Walk area. The Make Olympia Street Market was a showcase of local artisans and business people, where they could sell their wares even if they did not have a downtown storefront. It represented the usual panoply of goods one usually finds at a local festival, jewelry, clothing, food, etc. However it differed in that it was very much Olympian in its offerings. Equal parts farmer’s market, trader’s row, and swap meet, it lacked the cheap, carnival feel one gets at such places that have rented inflatable slides.
Of course one of the major events of the Art Walk festival is Procession of the Species. Procession is essentially a parade, but different from an atypical celebratory one. Participants develop their own costumes, floats, dances, music, or anything else they want to incorporate. These focus on local flora and fauna, though are not necessarily constrained by this. I saw floats and costumes representing the Sun and Moon, the elements, and even recycling. This year was no disappointment. It started roughly at the corner of Jefferson and Legion, at around 4:30 P.M. With a boom of bass drums and the rattle of snares the long line began to lurch into motion. Some especially impressive pieces were a partially dissected whale made of recycled materials, a choreographed dance troupe representing the sea, a massive paper-mache anthropomorphic Sun, and a black dragon made of a dummy and a bicycle.
One of the most important things Arts Walk brings to the area is the boost local businesses get. “It’s great, it brings people downtown,” was the opinion of Frank Hussey, co-owner of Danger Room Comics in Olympia. “Olympia has a living downtown, and Arts Walk very much contributes to it.” Virtually every window and store front in the downtown area I noticed had a small pink Arts Walk flier with a number on it. These corresponded to maps and guided tours available from the Arts Walk website. With these, participants could find information and locations about these businesses. It seemed to work out well, as almost every one in the Arts Walk area was packed as I went through. Most also had special art, sales, or local performers to enhance the celebration.
Perhaps one major difference in Arts Walk from other festivals in other cities is the overall sense of positivity. Arts Walk is very much a community focused event. This was evident as I walked around Friday and Saturday evening. Many of the displays were certainly political, anti- or pro- something (such as the band mentioned above), but there was no overriding sense of negativity. This is likely do to the interactive nature of most of the displays taking place. From basic concerts that encourage singing along to walls set aside for anyone to paint on, very little of Arts Walk was strictly for spectating.
Criticism of Arts Walk was relatively rare, though certainly present. Aside from general complaints about shutting off some roads or noise, some people had more specific complaints. Frank Hussey of Danger Room added, “While we do get more business from Arts Walk, sometimes it seems it focuses on central downtown, and we’d like to see more done to pull people from the central area.” One young man I spoke with, wearing a Keep Portland Olympia Weird shirt, said, “Arts Walk has become too commercial.” I noticed a few signs agreeing with this statement throughout the day, though even those holding them seemed to be in high spirits.
Arts Walk continues to be an Olympia tradition. The spirit is still very much alive, and has very little in the way of commercialization. Events are still sponsored largely by local businesses and radio stations. Families still gather in homemade costumes to walk in the Procession of the Species. The danger of losing this sense of community and fun to corporate interests and unnecessary sponsorship is present, but in the enjoyment of the moment and appreciation of the bohemian Olympia spirit such worries seem far away.