Local youths curate post-pandemic art exhibit at Grow Benzie
By Peyton Campbell
Ten years ago, I walked through the halls that my mother and father once learned in. The trophies of small-town legends and larger-than-life victories won on the courts and fields of Frankfort High School paved the way to the journey that I am still embarking on today.
Ten years ago, I found the community I would forever call home.
Ten years later, small-town legends are coming together again with a new focus, new trophies, and a new understanding of what community truly means. This is the story of my best friends and our collective synergy that will bring artists and community together after the global pandemic distanced us. This is the story of Florence Fest.
Core Four Beginnings
Florence Fest began in the bedroom of Mackenna Kelly (23) on a late February evening. We had met for coffee the week prior, and I had mentioned how I wanted to have a small gallery showing of my portrait photography at Grow Benzie—I thought it would be fun if she displayed her photo work alongside mine, too.
From this planted seed, a larger-than-life concept emerged. Kelly is a 2016 Frankfort alumna and a first-generation college graduate—she studied photojournalism at Central Michigan University, while also dedicated to the women’s basketball program there, winning four Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship rings. While at Frankfort, she contributed to many of the trophies that adorn those halls, as did her father before her.
As we began to speak about our region and the people who we grew up with, we scribbled down the names of local artists who might share our vision of displaying their work at our loosely developed art exhibition. One of the first names written was Samuel Tiesworth (23), a 2016 Frankfort alumnus and Ann Arbor-based musician who is known as NoFun Haus. Upon reaching out to Tiesworth, he immediately said “yes” to performing and extended his interest in developing and producing an experience for our hometown.
This was the moment we knew that we were building a community-based production that would not only feature the work of myself, Mackenna Kelly, and Sam Tiesworth but of others to whom we wanted to help grant exposure.
Due to social separation, virtual communication was our route to achieving this vision.
Reaching out to fellow artists through a simple Instagram “story” that was shared on my personal account, our friend Evan Hammon (22) communicated his interest in involvement from the jungles of Costa Rica. Hammon is a graduate of Frankfort High School and the University of Michigan (2017 and 2020, respectively). He is the lead of our fashion show that will feature ethically produced and re-inspired styles from the hands of five diverse and talented designers.
In the thawing of the spring season, our collective began communicating weekly through FaceTime meetings. Setting deadlines, delegating tasks, and using all of our skill sets to bring this no-longer-loosely-imagined show to life, “The Core Four,” as we are calling ourselves, are so proud to invite you to Florence Fest.
Florence Fest will be held on Saturday, June 5, at Grow Benzie, a nonprofit and venue that has served the local community for the past decade. Grow Benzie is led by the heart of Joshua Stoltz (45), a 1994 Benzie Central High School graduate who has traveled the world to deepen bonds between our rural home and those of other communities. Before Grow Benzie, Stoltz was a familiar face in both Benzie and Frankfort school systems, as he led SEEDS, an after-school outreach program that taught life skills and gave students a safe environment to grow; he held that leadership position during the time that all four of us were in middle and high school.
Stoltz’s impact on our lives was sometimes unknown to us, though, even as he sat in on every community meeting and filled many roles within many community boards. He has always advocated for the people of Benzie County, and now that includes the artists of Florence Fest.
Growing Up Benzie
Three summers ago, I was selling floral arrangements at the Elberta Farmers’ Market, when Stoltz approached me with an opportunity to become more engaged with my community. This opportunity was called AmeriCorps VISTA, which is a national service program designed to alleviate poverty. (Like his novel Peace Corps idea, President John F. Kennedy originated the idea for VISTA, which was founded as “Volunteers In Service To America” in 1965, and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993.)
That autumn, I walked into Grow Benzie a bit unsure of where to begin; I had felt called to work alongside the man who always extended so much of his spirit and self to the youth of Benzie County, yet, I had many doubts of my ability to promote wellness and to inspire others the way he had inspired me as a teenager.
Growing up impoverished and with limited access to resources that would take me further into my humanitarian-centered goals, I lacked confidence and abruptly left my position at Grow Benzie to chase monetary gain. For a year, I traveled through the United States working as an independent contractor on military bases, hoping to “find myself.” But ultimately, where I found myself was back where I had started: home.
The following months would lead me to a deep desire to reconnect with the community that I once had tried to stray from. Then, amidst the pandemic, I was finally able to fully accept my small-town roots—my desire to uplift the frequency of the world had to begin locally.
Shifting my focus from material wealth toward authentic connection, a dream was realized: I was born to communicate and network.
When planning this upcoming exhibit, Grow Benzie was my first and only option to curate art within our county lines. Growing Benzie County—much like growing into myself—takes time and the love of many talented visionaries. I extend my gratitude and acknowledge the resources and knowledge I acquired under the wing of my mentor and friend, Joshua Stoltz.
The production of Florence Fest has been intimate. It has entailed the beautification of our venue, as we have painted some of the old greenhouses with the help and support of our beautiful friends. We cannot wait to share what we have been collectively pouring our time, energy, and resources into.
One Day of Art
Beginning at 10 a.m., Florence Fest will feature the work of 30 artists of 30 different visions and mediums. Many of the vendors are local to the greater tri-county northwest region of Lower Michigan, and some are traveling hundreds of miles to share their work and inspire our community in this one-day and one-time event. Their dedication to creation over the past four months is what fuels our ambitions to ensure the success of Florence Fest. As a collective, we have spent more than 1,000 hours curating this 12-hour socially aware affair.
It is our intention to give artists outdoor space to sell their work to the public and build connections within our ever-growing community of creatives. Vendors will have their work on display and for sale until 4 p.m., and live performances will begin at 3 p.m, with a fashion show taking place, followed by spoken-word poetry, then music.
Performers will include a neo-punk farmer band, led by Tyler Bradley of Maple City, known as “The Dead Beets;” it will be a chance to sing and dance barefoot to favorite songs, reimagined. Nick Spencer’s punk rocker persona, “Pugloop,’’ will take the stage next, shredding his soul. Closing the show down will be Sam Tiesworth, also known as “NoFun Haus,’’ who will play original and covered pieces until the sun sets and it is time to go home.
Giving Back, Shining On
Florence Fest could not happen without the deep love I share with my co-producers, Mackenna Kelly, Sam Tiesworth, and Evan Hammon. We were born to the Lake Michigan coastline, rolling dunes, and fertile soil. We have witnessed loss, experienced rural suffering, and know that we must shine on.
This production is not financially focused; Florence Fest is about our community. Partial profits will be directed towards the legacy of our friend, Isaac Ryan McKinnon, who died in 2014.
I first met him in those hallways, lined with trophy cases that read the names of Frankfort’s legendary athletes. It is my honor to create this event and to remember him and his character. Losing Isaac, the darkest days plagued our community. And now when we see the sun, we are reminded to SHINE ON, the (unofficial) tagline of the Isaac Julian Legacy Fund.
Attendance donations from Florence Fest will go toward this family foundation fund, created in Isaac’s beautiful name—this fund annually awards a scholarship that focuses on character, rather than academics or athletics. Isaac shared kindness and respect toward everyone, whether they were from his community or the next. The foundation also sends financial resources to schools to educate faculty on the topic of suicide prevention.
I extend my deepest love and appreciation toward Isaac’s family for accepting funding from this production and bringing the focus back to where it all began—the community where I found a home within. [Editor’s Note: McKinnon was Stoltz’s step-son.]
Come One, Come All
Community is a place where people feel safe. Community is a space that accepts the weak as it accepts the strong. Community is constantly evolving, and—as a collective—all must evolve to support the people who are changing within it.
Community cannot be built in a day. Community cannot be destroyed once it has roots as deep as these northern pines. Our community is growing, and the concept of bringing in new faces, new connections, and new awareness to Benzie is what initially inspired me to reach out to friends I had made a decade ago.
Wherever we go, no matter how far, we are connected by the land and lakes that made us the wild-eyed creatives we have become. We are connected by our pasts, and we will never forget the people who have paved the way to where our community is heading tomorrow.
Florence Fest welcomes you home. Florence Fest welcomes you to our community. Florence Fest welcomes you to the Collective. With love, from The North—we hope to see you there.
On Saturday, June 5, 2021, Florence Fest will open to the public at 10 a.m. and stay open until 10 p.m. at Grow Benzie, located at 5885 Frankfort Highway/US-31, between Benzonia and Frankfort. There is a one-time admission fee of $10 per adult; children under 13 will be admitted free of charge. A full line-up of events can be seen at @Florence_Fest on Instagram. Contact Peyton Campbell at 231-383-5322 with questions or for more information.
Feature Photo Caption: More than 1,000 hours have gone into preparing for Florence Fest—a 12-hour, socially aware art affair—including beautification of the venue, Grow Benzie. Photo by Peyton Campbell.
What’s In A Name?
Building this project, committing to the community of artists, and working alongside the talents born to Benzie County—this is a great renaissance, rising.
In that vein, the name of Florence Fest is tied to Latin root and human history.
Flor: To bloom. To emerge. To flower. In essence, to live.
Florence Fest is a celebration of the life we have been given and our one shared home, Mother Gaia. Exiting the year 2020, the evolution of human capacity to create became apparent, and that is what has fueled the many hands in this process of curation.
Florence, Italy: Despite the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, having devastated European and Asian populations in the mid-1300s, the city soon became home of The Renaissance—that pandemic led to great socio-economic, cultural, and religious changes, and Italian society staged a spectacular recovery shortly thereafter.
Likewise, there were times over the past year that Michigan had among the highest number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States. The mission of Florence Fest is to shift focus from being socially distanced toward supportive social awareness that this past year has taught the collective of humankind.
If this event inspires you to show up, please move with great awareness. It is in our hearts to bring this experience and exposure of artistry to the community, which leads the organizers of this event to insist that all attendees must mask up if they have not been vaccinated and to practice practical hygiene throughout their attendance. The health of our community is paramount; help us build back, better than before.