By Anne Butler
In just about the only part of south Louisiana whose woodlands experience an explosion of autumn coloring as frosts turn leaves brilliant reds and yellows and oranges, it is only fitting that one of the most popular area celebrations is called the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival.
Held Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the fourth weekend of October, the 24th and 25th, it’s a gathering of dozens of artists, crafters and musicians performing, demonstrating and selling their original handcrafted creations in downtown St. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park.
Yellow Leaf 2015 brings together more than 50 artists plus fun children’s activities, great food and live music by Young Songbirds, Luke Ash, The Fugitive Poets, Clay Parker, Nancy Roppolo, Gina Forsyth, The Wilder Janes, Jodi James, Ryan Harris, Melissa Wilson, and a Songbird Jam. New this year is a drawing tent, and the popular photography contest showcases images of Louisiana Wildlife.
Featured artist is Mitch Evans, whose art graces this year’s festival poster, a gracefully sensuous design of a tall tree rendered in…what? Oils? Acrylics? Watercolors? Nope. Actually, Evans is an artist who more or less paints in wood, as well as sculpting or carving it.
With the beauty of its lush natural resources and its fascinating depth of heritage, the St. Francisville area has inspired many a painter and writer. Audubon responded to the call of its prolific birdlife; Walker Percy responded to the echoes of its history. Today, it’s the wood that speaks to Mitch Evans, whether live oak or black walnut, sinker cypress or hackberry, pecan, river birch, red maple or sweet gum. And he listens and he understands, letting the chunks of wood tell him what to make of them…trencher bowls, vases, designs like paintings rendered in slivers and bits of wood, even a piece where he has used his chainsaws, grinders and sanders to turn small bits of wood into what you’d swear are shiny river rocks.
He calls himself a “wood geek,” and says he loves everything there is about trees and wood, finding wonder and amazement in the pure and simple beauty of wood as revealed in all stages of its life and eventual death, through growth rings and textures and varying colorations. He says in many ways his relationship with his wooden creations is his own personal religion, and the beauty of his creations inspires awe in beholders as well as the artist.
Always looking for a new way to present the drama of Mother Nature, Evans has lately been inspired to recreate in wood the exquisite turnings of a Nautilus shell. He has also produced a series of what he calls Progressions, made by laying out small cuts of different woods that lead the eye in dramatic fashion from beginning to end on a magical mystery journey, a visual concept of how individual pieces seem so simple in one dimension but yet are intricately and inevitably connected when viewed in a different dimension. Evans finds the analogy to humanity profound, humankind separate and yet connected, with an entirely new vision of beauty revealed in the whole.
Arts For All calls the Yellow Leaf Festival a celebration of the “friendly, relaxed, authentic, small-town quaintness that is St. Francisville,” (for information, www.artsforall.felicianalocal.com). And October in St. Francisville is crowded with other events that celebrate its diverse passions as well, running the gamut from ghosts to gardens, from inmate rodeo bull riders to the Warrior Dash on October 3, a down-and-dirty mud-covered survival-of-the-fittest footrace (firstname.lastname@example.org) . And every one of these diverse celebrations adds to the richness of life in this southern small town.
This being the season of witches and goblins, The Myrtles Halloween Experience scares the pants off visitors every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in October from 6 to 9 p.m. in a historic plantation house calling itself the most haunted in America (for tickets, telephone 800-809-0565). Indeed, when the attached gift shop caught fire last year, the ghosts were said to have saved the 1790s main house (the local firefighters just might’ve helped, too).
For a taste of authentic historic funeral customs, nearby Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site is dressed in mourning garb the entire last week in October. On October 29 at 4 p.m. the costumed staff of this National Historic Landmark relates Soul Stories of Rosedown family members’ lives and deaths (call 225-635-3332 for information). At the Audubon State Historic Site, All Hallows Eve is marked October 30 and 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. with a special evening tour of the grounds, slave cabins, the only existing grave on the place, and a candlelight tour of Oakley house spiced with legends, myths and ghost stories (call 225-635-3739 for information).
Every Sunday in October, the Angola Prison Rodeo draws more than 10,000 eager spectators to witness death-defying bravado in events like bareback bronc or bull riding, wild cow milking, wild horse race, buddy pick-up, bulldogging, inmate poker (last one seated wins, the other players having been hooked sky-high by charging brahma bulls), Bust Out (six bulls released at once) and the crowd-pleasing Guts and Glory when inmates on foot try to snatch a $100 chit from a bull’s horns. “The Wildest Show in the South, ” which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats from the moment the black-clad Angola Rough Riders charge into the arena at break-neck speed, also features prisoner hobbycraft sales, tons of food, and inmate bands. Other than the ladies’ barrel racing, all rodeo participants are inmates in this enormous maximum-security prison. Grounds open at 9 for the arts and crafts, and the fascinating state museum at the entrance gate will also be open. The rodeo starts at 2, and advance tickets are a must (www.angolarodeo.com provides information and spells out regulations which must be observed on prison property).
Somewhat more sedate activities are offered October 23 and 24th at the 27th annual Southern Garden Symposium, a series of entertainments, workshops, tours, demonstrations and lectures by prestigious speakers in this the land of glorious antebellum gardens. Workshop topics this year include floral design, shade gardening, promising plants for southern landscapes, bizarre botanicals, cool nurseries, establishing a horticultural sense of place, southeastern native plants, and a special presentation on Rosedown’s Gardens which were begun in 1835 and have been beautifully maintained and restored. Lecture and workshop locations include Hemingbough, Rosedown and Afton Villa Gardens, and historic downtown churches, with entertainments at Wildwood and the Underwood Cottage (www.southerngardensymposium.org).
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and
Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).