Fair Artistry Is Both Local and Global

By Tim Pompey

It’s another beautiful day for browsing around at the Ventura County Fair. Their latest theme: “A Country Fair with Ocean Air.”

The saying seems particularly appropriate today as a cool breeze blows off the ocean and the sky is a shimmering, cloudless blue. Never mind the long lines to get through the newly installed metal detectors. If you have to wait somewhere in a line, it’s good to wait here and just enjoy walking slowly. Why hurry on a day like today?

People return to the fair for lots of reasons. For me, I’m on the hunt for something I haven’t noticed in past years. After all, I’m here to write, and every year I need to have something different to write about. It’s like looking in the middle of a Where’s Waldo picture for, well, Waldo, or, in this case, multiple Waldos.

While the fair itself it not that large and some things are a constant (like the barbecue joint near the front entrance, always diagonal to the fudge booth across the street), this is about being observant and looking in the nooks and crannies for what I term “the unexplored.”

And for some reason, this year the creative, artistic, and musical, seem to catch my eye. At the fair, it’s always an annual gathering of creativity. From professional to amateur, the fair solicits creative people to show off their wares in every phase. From sheep to photos, from paintings to funnel cake, from gemstones to Laotian handstitched clothes. Big name acts may play at night on the main stage, but the heart and soul of the fair are the locals and the globalists who display their talents in their individual spaces.

For example, at the entrance to the Amateur Arts building, I spot a group of ladies who are members of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, Channel Islands .

VC Fair 01.Embroiderers Guild

Some members of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, Channel Islands Chapter: (Front): Arielle Rose, Wilhelmina Stall, Lora Tanner; (Back) Cheryl McCombs, Mari Bangs, Kathleen Quinn

To my shame, I usually think of embroidery as more of a Midwestern tradition for ladies to pass the time on cold winter nights in Nebraska, but truthfully, it’s an extraordinary art form that is alive and well here on the Central Coast. So I ask Mari (pronounced Mary) Bangs from Camarillo, what exactly she considers “embroidery.” Her answer is simple enough: “Anything you can do with a needle and thread.”

This includes things like needlepoint, white work, drawn thread, spool thread, cross stitch, and surface embroidery, just to name a few. “Basically if you can put a needle and thread to fabric of some sort, it’s considered embroidery,” she explained.

But wait. What about sewing clothes, things like that? Mari points out the difference between sewing and embroidery. Clothing is considered construction. She does “needlework for art’s sake.” Fair enough.

For Mari, it’s the art of the needle and thread that’s important. “It’s the design,” she said. “They’re usually unique.”

Some people think of needlework as an art form passed down generation to generation, but Mari learned on her own, basically by reading publications. “It was an interest I had,” said. “I started with kits and then I went on doing other things.”

Wandering around, I stop in at the Happy Cheeks Face Painting booth where artist in residence, Denise Warner, is painting an animal design on a little girl and a bow-tie of some sort for her mother.

daughter Brittani Kniep and mother Aubree Kniep

daughter Brittani Kniep and mother Aubree Kniep

Denise’s mother started her own company thirty-two years ago. Denise has grown up with the business ever since she was 6-years-old. Now, just like her mother, she is practicing and teaching face painting.

Unlike thirty-two years ago, the opportunities now to learn face painting are abundant. “These days, there’s tons of places to learn,” said Denise, “though when we first started my mom taught herself. Now you can learn on the Internet, take classes, etc.”

I ask Denise about what makes a good face paint artist and her answer surprises me. More than just artistic talent. “In my opinion,” said Denise, “it’s not forgetting that he or she is a person and not just a canvas.”

Denise tries to personalize everyone’s experience and make it memorable. It also helps, I imagine, to enjoy kids. Denise confirms this by her broad smile whenever she greets her next customer.

Up and down the aisles of the business booths, I try to spot something artistic for sale. In here, the sales pitch is almost palpable and the items range from trinkets to clothes to big ticket items like house remodeling and spa installation.

But wait a minute. Russian art? Now this catches my eye. I meet Victoria Rybalov and her son Boris, owners of the booth called Russian Souvenirs. Bold, I think, selling Russian art even as the U.S. continues to have a showdown with Putin’s version of Russia. Still, art is art, and this art is very appealing:  whimsical, bright colored, old world.

Owner of Buy Russian Gifts, Victoria Rybalov with featured pieces: Santa on the Moon (left) and 10-piece Matryoshka Doll Set Nativity Scene (right)

Owner of Buy Russian Gifts, Victoria Rybalov with featured pieces: Santa on the Moon (left) and 10-piece Matryoshka Doll Set Nativity Scene (right)

Ironically, it turns out that Victoria is not Russian. She’s from the Ukraine, which of course, ups the political ante, Russia and Ukraine not exactly being on speaking terms these days. Still, Victoria and family, who live in Los Angeles, have been in business for 25 years because, as she puts it, “We love Russian art.” No surprise that art could serve as the great peacemaker of our generation.

She sells everything from toys and trinkets to one of a kind handmade artifacts. “This is one of the arts that hasn’t died yet,” she said, and the work that is high-end is stunning. She features large pieces that are hand carved and hand painted, using the same techniques as they used in Russia in the late 18th century.

But why do they keep returning to this particular fair? I don’t generally think of the county as being Slavic. “We have a lot of collectors,” she answered. “So many Americans love Russian art because it’s done by hand and it’s very unusual and people appreciate how they create it.”

As she tells it, some of her artists have pieces in museums in Europe. She showed me an example of a hand carved work called “Santa on the Moon,” as well as a beautiful 10-piece nativity set, known as a “matryoshka nesting doll,” in which one piece is placed inside another. Taken apart, you have a full nativity scene.

There is something almost otherworldly about the design and the colors that remind me of the world of Dr. Zhivago. Here in this busy, noisy building, another continent, another culture.

Speaking of another culture, I meet steel drum player Prince Bernard  playing his tracks and his steel drums, not far actually, from the aforementioned fudge booth. Bernard is proudly from Trinidad and Tobago, but has been here in the States since 1996. He lives now in Los Angeles.

Prince Bernard from Trinidad plays the steel drums

Prince Bernard from Trinidad plays the steel drums

Of course, there is not a happier sound to be heard than steel drums, and if you’re lucky enough to be at the fair today, only a rock’s throw from the beach and enjoying a beautiful sunny day, you could almost picture yourself living the good life. Bernard himself has such a broad smile when he plays, and his lovely Caribbean accent is as fluid as a fresh wave.

Bernard has been playing most of his life. “From a little boy, I used to hide and watch the drummers play,” he chuckles. He’s been drumming for forty years and has owned his own business, the Sweet Caribbean Music for Entertainment, for twenty-five of those years.

As he demonstrates, to be a good steel drummer, you have to “know the position of the jump (as in scales) and learn the structure of chords.”

As a fellow musician, I’m intrigued that I could actually practice and play steel drums; that is, if my wife agreed and the neighbors didn’t complain. The drums are sweet and lively. They are also loud, built so that it’s music travels for miles up and down the coast. He swings through a C, F, and G chord structure. “You have all the scales just like a piano,” he notes.

Yes, except no one dances when I play piano. When Bernard plays, it’s an open invitation and the street belongs to him.

He’s proud to tell me about the origin of the steel drum. In his lilting accent he informs me that “if anyone asks you, where does the steel drum come from, Trinidad is the inventor of the steel drum and the calypso.”

I take his word for it and listen to a song he’s composed. Yup, mon, with a little practice, I could play that.

Up and down the main drag I travel. I get my caricature drawn by San Diego artist Damon Renthrope (tweet hyperlink: @DamonArts). Not that I want to brag, but I have a pretty good profile. He makes sure to get the nose and ears right. Imagine, this face, this portrait, someday hung in the Getty.

Damon Renthrope provides writer Tim Pompey with his caricature

Damon Renthrope provides writer Tim Pompey with his caricature

And the whacked out threesome that make up the Street Drum Corps playing some of their rifts on the likes of beer kegs, bent barrels, and plastic buckets. It’s an in your face style of drumming, since they’re performing right on the street. They look like high school rejects who each stole only half of their school’s required band uniform. But they play wildly and dance while they’re doing it. You can’t have a fair without drums, right? I’m looking around to see if the school principal might be closing in with the cops. So far, so good. They keep playing.

Street Drum Corps

Street Drum Corps

People come here for all different reasons, but I think mostly it’s to revel in a country style celebration that has some unusual twists and turns. This is true of a family I meet from Santa Clarita. As they sit and eat lunch, I’m introduced to Grandfather Rich Hairfield, his wife Faith Hairfield, their daughter Amy Alexander and her children Andrew (8) and Cameron (9).

(left to right): Rich Hairfield, Faith Hairfield, Amy Alexander, Andrew Alexander (age 8), Cameron Alexander (age 9)

(left to right): Rich Hairfield, Faith Hairfield, Amy Alexander, Andrew Alexander (age 8), Cameron Alexander (age 9)

They’ve been coming here together as an expanding family for 10 years. It all started when Amy was pregnant with Cameron. The three of them came out in the grandmother’s convertible Mustang.

As Amy recalled: “We came out in the Mustang because it has a terrible suspension so they could induce labor.”

It didn’t work. Cameron was born after the fair, but they’ve been coming ever since. When asked why they keep coming back, Faith joked that “They hadn’t figured it out yet.”

Faith describes this event as an “old town fair. That’s why we like it.”

“It doesn’t overwhelm you like when you go to the L.A. Fair,” Rick added.

Which may explain the fair’s charm as much as any other description. Small town fair, but if you look closely, you can see a classy but slightly bent world has descended on Ventura. The charming, the raucous, the bizarre. The fair itself is busy and noisy and often crowded, but that’s what a fair is for. We all gather. We buy. We eat. We wander and gaze. And somewhere in this hustle and bustle we find something that surprises and amuses us. As Bernard plays me a song he wrote, I want to say over his ample P.A. system: “Yah, mon, today at de fair, a good day to be livin’.” Then I head to Pink’s for a hot dog.


Photo Credits: Tim Pompey


Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can find his books on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

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