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Thursday, May 13, 2004 05:47 am

The art of reaching middle age, without a crisis

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Billy Morrow Jackson’s painting of the Old Capitol Art Fair, circa 1965

In 1961, the now-defunct Springfield Central Area Development Association invited community organizations to help plan a one-day art fair. The rather lofty goal was to launch an event that would help turn Springfield into a "model capital city to be observed by other cities of the nation as a source of pride and emulation." Now in its 43rd year, the Old Capitol Art Fair is a self-sustaining, independent effort that continues to bring artists and buyers together in lovely downtown Springfield.

This year, there are 20 new artists among nearly 200 exhibitors, making the fair one of the largest invitational arts shows in the Midwest. Organizers strike a balance between local and national artists with representatives from 20 states and more than 30 central-Illinois artists.

According to Denny Kelley, one of the show's original organizers, even the first fair, held May 26, 1962, was a success. "We had a member who was in art education, and he had a good mailing list of artists from all over the state," Kelley says. "When the sales were good, the word spread fast." During the restoration of the Old State Capitol in the mid-'60s, the fair moved to the Lincoln's-home area. "It got way too big," Kelley recalls. "We had over 500 artists. All the work of putting up and tearing down was done by volunteers. It was way out of hand."

The fair became a juried event after it returned to the newly restored Old State Capitol Plaza in 1971 and settled into the current number of nearly 200 artists each year.

Kelley, who now lives in Galveston, Texas, hasn't visited the fair he helped create in 23 years. This year, he's returning with a special gift for the Civic Art Collection.

"Illinois Bell Telephone sponsored a contest for the cover picture of their phone book. The art that won the fair that year was horizontal and they couldn't use it," says Kelley, "so I bought it." The painting, by Billy Morrow Jackson, a longtime professor of art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is of the art fair itself in the mid-'60s. "I thought people would like to see the show as it was back then."

The Old Capitol Art Fair again includes a children's tent, offering art objects priced to fit the budgets of fairgoers ages 15 and under, at the corner of Sixth and Adams streets. Entertainment stages will feature local music acts, and food and beverages will be available.

Old Capitol Art Fair is held 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, May 15, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, May 16. Bring an umbrella, just in case. For more information, call 217-391-0140 or visit www.socaf.org.

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