Arts Fest: Itself a Work of Art

By Tom Shakely, July 2015

In the slower summer months in Happy Valley, Arts Fest looms large on the calendar. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts has been a special time of year for many decades, since its earliest days as a student-initiated celebration on up through the singular tradition it has become today.

It’s no stretch to point out that Arts Fest is closer to a cultural tradition of the Nittany Valley than it is merely the sum of its parts as a nonprofit initiative, or an artistic festival, or an occasion for nostalgic homecomings. And it’s particularly as a cultural tradition that Arts Fest is most worth celebrating. So what are we celebrating?

Togetherness, first and foremost. Arts Fest, more than any other point on the calendar, is a commitment to being together in the Nittany Valley. And it’s in that togetherness that we rediscover each summer the resilient and radiant nature of the spirit of our community.

In an earlier age, our American Indian predecessors remarked upon this area’s strange magnetism with the legend of vain and pompous King Wi-daagh, whose power to compel visitors to return and pay tribute lingered even beyond the grave. Call it “something in the water,” the Spirit of the Valley, or simply the stubborn curse of a long-dead chieftain, a bewitching quality draws people back.

Penn State football brings townspeople, students, and alumni together throughout the fall. Penn State student philanthropy brings many together each February. And the Blue-White scrimmage each April echoes the games of autumn. Yet Arts Fest stands apart, because those who stay or return do so most often simply to be together during one of the most beautiful months of the year. It’s often an external calling that brings us together in the Nittany Valley, but for those who celebrate Arts Fest, it’s more often than not a personal whispering of the heart that calls them back.

Arts Fest also is a celebration of physical place. Strangely, this is something most of us tend to lack. Of course, we all live someplace in particular. But in the midst of our suburbanized society, we often do lack a sense of place. If we’re not cloistered away in cul-de-sacs and commuting in atomized, climate-controlled transport, we’re more likely than not insulated within the thick walls of some apartment residence.

In coming together in the Nittany Valley, we’re coming to a specific place. One where we live or once studied. One where we played or drink. One whose paths and landmarks and trees and boundaries feel far more concrete and timeless than most of the places we experience in our everyday lives. This beautiful, physical place is the context for togetherness for a few special days, and a time surely for appreciating beautiful people and their creations as much as for admiring the specialness of place that helps keep Happy Valley so happy.

Yet Arts Fest is a celebration of something even more beautiful. Nostalgia, to paraphrase an insightful writer, is powerful because it tells us about what’s not presently in our life by reminding us what once was a part of our life. In other words, nostalgia is an invitation to remember some of the things we love and an urging to find a way to re-encounter that love.

We celebrate Arts Fest because it’s a form of living nostalgia. In the midst of our togetherness in one of America’s happiest places, and in getting away from the sort daily life that so often isolates rather than unites us, we encounter bits of our past that we love. Arts Fest is like an invitation to consciously recognize the things we miss, and bring them back into our daily lives.

On your trip back for Arts Fest this (or any) year, make time to encounter or reacquaint yourself with these things. Visit and learn the story of Old Willow as you cross Old Main lawn. Carve out a few hours for an early morning hike up Mount Nittany. Buy the button. Sleep in a dorm. A slower pace offers the chance to fondly remember all that’s changed and cherish how much yet remains.

In this light, Arts Fest is “itself a work of art” as former Penn State Trustee Ben Novak writes. “In order to enjoy the festival itself as art,” he continues, “one needs but a quiet time of recollection and a good tankard of ale. Then one can summon up again the best of the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings of the festival week. One can savor each one, turning it over carefully in one’s mind, converting what might have been only a momentary thrill into a lasting impression. After all, isn’t that what art is—the converting of something momentary, like a fleeting smile on a woman’s face, into something lasting, like the Mona Lisa?”

This year during Arts Fest, no matter how fleeting or lasting your time, try to consciously recognize the sort of people, places, and experiences that make you happiest, and bring them with you when you leave. You might find a new spirit, itself like a work of art, animating your daily life.