STARKVILLE, Miss.— Charlie Ann Harris, a Jackson, Miss., native, was working as a telemarketer when she decided to use the eight hours she spent each day sitting at a desk to develop her artistic talent.
“To kill the time, I just kind of doodled, which I’ve done most of my life,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “But I started taking it a little more seriously just because for eight hours a day you just repeat the same work, so you get pretty bored. I started focusing more on that and developed my own style and figured I could kind of just see if I could make business with it.”
Saturday was both Harris’ first time in Starkville, Miss., and her first time selling her crafts at the Cotton District Arts Festival, an annual gathering with dozens of artisans and food vendors selling homemade creations on University Drive. Harris had colorful skateboards with hand-painted snakes and chains and a painting of a disco ball sitting in front of her booth, waiting for someone to take them home.
“Everything has to be handmade,” Mary Switzer, executive director of the Starkville Area Arts Council, told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s a really strict requirement that we have, and we’re really proud of that.”
Artisans and food vendors must apply to have a booth at the festival, and no two booths may sell the same items.
“We want to make sure we have a lot of variety at the festival,” Switzer said.
History of the Arts Festival
Although no one knows exactly when the Cotton District Arts Festival started, Starkville native Switzer said it has been a tradition for as long as she can remember.
Dan Camp, who was often called the “mayor of the Cotton District,” started a version of the Cotton District Arts Festival in the 1980s, “but it was not the same” as it is now, arts council program coordinator Juliette Reid said.
“It was more of a social gathering—and they had musicians, and they had artisans—but it wasn’t, like, booths; it was more of a gathering of minds, I would say,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “From what I’ve heard recently, the arts council was doing a festival. It was not called the Cotton District Arts Festival, … and then in the early 2000s, we were given the name the Cotton District Arts Festival.”
The arts festival used to be on the Saturday of Super Bulldog Weekend, three spring days full of Mississippi State University sporting events, and would attract 40,000 to 50,000 people to the Cotton District, Reid said. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mississippi in March 2020, the arts festival kept getting pushed back. Eventually, the arts council set a date for fall 2021, and the festival continued at a smaller size.
“So we said, ‘We’re gonna do it in the fall no matter what. We have to,’” Reid recalled. “And it was a lot smaller.”
She said the pandemic still affects the festival, as many of the older vendors and attendees do not come out to large gatherings anymore for fear of catching COVID-19.
And now the City of Starkville would not let the arts council hold the festival during Super Bulldog Weekend because hotels in the city would not have enough rooms for all of the visitors, Reid added.
It Takes A Village
Juliette Reid estimated that about 30,000 people and dozens of dogs walked the streets of the Cotton District on Saturday, where beaded jewelry; paintings of pets, celebrities and flowers; macrame plant hangers; vintage costumes; candles; and any type of craft one can imagine were on display. About 95 artisans and 14 vendors sold their creations.
Organizers divided the festival into villages for the artisans, children, international cultures and writers, along with the Taste of Starkville, the pet parade and the juried art competition. Three stages had musical and theatrical performances all day. Two arts council committee members found local performers to fill the times.
Before the festival, the arts council hosted a singer-songwriter competition at Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern for contestants to win a chance at performing their original music on one of the stages.
One arts council committee oversees the artisans village, while another manages the Taste of Starkville, the food vendors.
This year, the writer’s village was more laid-back, and the Reading to Succeed program from the local Discovery Center provided free books for attendees of all ages to take home.
“In the past, we’ve had author signings and readings, and we would purchase books for people to take for free from those authors,” Reid said. “I don’t know, COVID kind of changed that a lot. We didn’t have it for a while, then we lost the volunteer who used to do it.” She said it was “disheartening” to see the writer’s village decline post-pandemic.
The Holmes Cultural Diversity Center ran the international village, where people from different cultures shared traditional singing and dancing performances, taught others about their culture and finished by waving their countries’ flags in a parade through the festival. Reid said the international village attracts people who may not have attended the festival otherwise due to language barriers or not knowing anyone.
Local theater groups, like improv comedy troupe Lab Rats and the Golden Triangle Theater, shared the stage with the international village and performed short skits.
Starkville Strong, a local nonprofit that focuses on food and housing insecurity, hosted the children’s village with a circus theme. Dozens of children walked through University Drive with tiger stripes and butterfly wings painted on their smiling faces. Starkville Strong also accepted donations.
The Starkville Area Arts Council chooses different judges each year to hand-pick submissions and award winners in the juried art competition
“They don’t know the artists; they just know the art that is presented to them,” Reid said.
Friday night, before the festival, the arts council held a reception for the competition so that people could admire and purchase the art.
In years past, the festival had a student juried art competition, but Reid said students were often busy with statewide competitions or school and did not have as much time to create art.
A pet parade kicked off the festival on the south stage at 9 a.m. with competitions for pet tricks and costumes. Newly elected Starkville Pet Mayor Buster Camp served as the grand marshal. The registration fees went to the Oktibbeha County Humane Society.
“It’s very fitting that (Buster) is doing this at the Cotton District Arts Festival since he is a sort of mascot for the Cotton District,” Mary Switzer, executive director of the arts council, said. “He actually lives in the Cotton District.”
Proceeds from the festival went to the arts council, and Reid said they put most of the money into advertising, supplies, merchandise, the website and employees. The Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Arts Commission, the City of Starkville and Oktibbeha County give grants each year to the Starkville Area Arts Council for the festival.
Bringing The Community Together
Jackson native Mary Williams was at a craft show in another city when a customer asked if she would attend the Cotton District Arts Festival. The artist agreed and set up a booth at the festival for the first time.
She found her passion for making southern farmhouse creations when she asked her son to build her a birdhouse but he did not have time to do it.
“And I said, ‘A birdhouse, I can do that.’” Williams recalled. “So, I got a little handsaw and made my birdhouse. And I said, ‘Oh, I like that.’”
After finishing the birdhouse, she put her skills to the test, making other designs from wood and painting them with reds, yellows and blues.
Starkville native Tessa Luke sold her handmade jewelry at the festival for the second time. Beaded necklaces adorned with crystals dangled from displays, catching the light.
“I really like creating beaded pieces that have, like, dangly, teardrop pieces,” she said, adding that gothic jewelry and rosaries inspire her designs.
Switzer said hosting a yearly gathering for artists and art lovers in Starkville brings the community together.
“My favorite part is definitely the artisans, and that’s because, you know, I myself am an artist and I know how important (it is) to be able to have a way to communicate with people who are interested in art,” Switzer said.
For more information on the Cotton District Arts Festival and how to apply to future iterations, visit cdafestival.com.