I used to think arts festivals were about art - I mean paintings framed and hanging on the wall - and maybe some pieces of sculpture. I then learned what art installations were and, while not always understanding them, I began to understand that the arts encompass so many different forms of creativity, innovation, skill and imagination.
The big eye opener was reading a poster for Galway Arts Week twenty-plus years ago and seeing the range of activities and exhibitions on offer. And thus, my love of arts festivals was born.
I have now enjoyed many days out and even the odd weekend at an arts festival somewhere around the country. As this year’s Galway International Arts festival comes to a close, I’m reflecting on what I’ve seen, learned, heard and enjoyed over the years.
Arts festivals are fun. I come away from so many events with a big smile on my face and, in some instances, with a face sore from laughing. Yesterday, I took part in a silent disco on the streets of Galway. There were forty of us wearing headphones so no passersby could hear what we were listening to as we were led through various dance routines by a mad Spanish dancer wearing fluorescent pink. I’ve wanted to do it for years as it’s a staple event at this festival, but never had the courage. I mean, I probably looked like a complete eejit dancing in Shop Street at 3pm, but I threw caution (and dignity) to the wind and I had a blast.
Interaction with the community is a big part of most arts festivals. I’ve met so many lovely people at different exhibitions. Sometimes, we would start a conversation looking at a piece of art because we either really understood it or were completely baffled as to what the artist was trying to convey. Many of these chats are with volunteers from the community, without whom festivals wouldn’t survive, and they enjoy meeting visitors and sharing their sense of pride in their community festival.
Arts festivals are family-friendly and I have seen all ages and abilities take part. Most have a parade or similar street event that is fun for everyone.
Macnas were formed as part of the Galway Arts Festival and are now thrilling people all over the country with their street performances - much loved by children who are often both enthralled and scared while watching.
At the Saw Doctors concert last week, I saw children, teens, and all ages (one lady I met was 84) in the audience. My own daughter, 26, came with me and we sang, jumped up and down and danced - at the end, she proclaimed it was the best live concert ever.
I always learn something new at arts festivals. Many exhibitions teach me about new cultures or traditions, or I learn to look at things from a different perspective. Photographic exhibitions are a great way of seeing the ordinary in a new light. Photographs of faces from all over the world teach us that, despite the colour of the skin, age or gender, we are all human.
As well as learning, I see things differently and how they reflect my life. At one play a few years ago, I watched as one actor played six different roles. Each time he changed role he changed the hat he was wearing. It was subtle but effective, and made me think of how different we can feel depending on what we wear and how we change our clothes to do different things or go to different places.
Going to arts festivals has allowed me to sit in theatres, where you could hear the proverbial pin drop; engage in robust discussion on issues from climate change to women’s rights; stand in a bog, looking at a huge mirror reflect the world around me; sing, laugh and cry; wonder at the skill and creativity that make up the exhibits; join hundreds as we built a tower of cardboard boxes; dance like no one is watching and meet people from all over the world.