Photo courtesy of LEAF
For Jennifer Pickering, all art is both local and global and LEAF is that philosophy in action.
Jo Reed: That was the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing at the Lake Eden Arts Festival better known as LEAF. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced by the national Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Twice a year in the Spring and Fall, musicians, painters, jugglers, storytellers, artists of all stripes gather in Black Mountain North Carolina for the Lake Eden Arts Festival or LEAF. LEAF is the brainchild of Jennifer Pickering who grew up in Black Mountain which was site of Black Mountain College the hub of avant garde art in the 1940s and 50s. Located outside of Ashville, it's an area known for its immense physical beauty and its thriving artistic culture. But Jennifer wanted to complement the rich music traditions of the Blueridge Mountains by adding music from all corners of the world to the Blue grass mix. That was 19 years ago. During that time LEAF has expanded its reach, developing LEAF Schools and Streets which brings the arts and artists to youth in the Ashville area--working with some 5,000 students each year. Pickering followed that up with LEAF International. Now operating in ten countries, and working closely with local artists, LEAF International connects global youth to their own cultural traditions. A bi-annual festival, in addition to local and international arts' education programming. That's an ambitious agenda but Jennifer Pickering is someone who simply gets things done. When I spoke with her I asked her how, back in 1995, she came to start LEAF.
Jennifer Pickering: LEAF began by a series of accidents and coincidences. And I was, at the time, photographing and my passion was cultural documentary. And I had just moved back to Asheville into the place where I live, which is in Black Mountain. And it's at old Black Mountain College where a lot of the extraordinary work in the '40s and '50s culminated. And I had really thought that I would start in Asheville some kind of place where people came and learned about global cultures. And at the time, there was a festival that had been happening on the grounds of Black Mountain College site. And the guy who owned it at the time came to me and said, "You're going to buy my festival." And I said, "Well, I don't know anything about festivals." And I learned a lot about people and a lot about life through that transition. And in the end, I ended up starting some fresh and really gathered a lot of people locally together. And we wanted to create something where people would come and be able to sample the best of what was happening in Western North Carolina. All the different kind of arts that were happening, such as the poetry, the healing arts, and the different crafts and the arts and the storytelling. At the same time, be able to take them globally through a world of music. And present, at least, 30 to 50 different genres each festival.
Jennifer Pickering: At the time when I started LEAF, which was 20 years ago now, most festivals were focused on one particular genre. And they didn't at that time have a lot of the different extraordinary arts as part of it that now have become, kind of, staple. And at the same time that we were creating this, we also wanted to create something that was a place where you would bring families, where you would bring your young kids, your babies. But you would also bring your grandparents. A lot of festivals, as I started learning, were really kind of for the 18 to 28 year old grouping. And at that point, that didn't seem like a real match for what we were learning to do. So that's kind of the basics of how it ended up starting. Again, just following the paths and the opportunities. But also looking at both what was around me inspiring me and then, what was globally inspiring.
Jo Reed: Now, you say it's family friendly. And indeed it is. Many, many people bring kids. But that also means you have to have programming for kids. What kind of programs do you have that really are suited and directed at children?
Jennifer Pickering: You're exactly right. And for the first time this year, we tried something totally different. And it was a risk and it worked, thank goodness. We've always had a fabulous kids' village that was a world within its own. It was almost like a mini festival within the festival. And I started having parents request things like, "Why can't you put a beer station in kids' village?" And I'm, like, "Hmm, I'm not a parent. But I really don't think that's a good idea." Or things like, you know, we just don't get the stages, as much. So our team started thinking about it. And this year, we actually starbursted the kids' village across the festival. Which means, essentially, that every couple of hundred yards you would walk, there would be another interactive arts experience that would be available to almost any age. And not just kids, but also teens and adults. So in terms of programming, it's anything from puppets to-- one of my favorite is the LEAF Instrument Petting Zoo, which is a tent that's filled with every instrument you can imagine, where the kids get to go in and just play. A lot of interactive arts, a one-mic recording studio, where kids can record themselves and sing and do whatever they want. A lot of circus arts, we've got a jelly fish dome, which people get on. And then, also, within that programming, you have musicians and artists that are specific for kids.
Music Up: "I saw a lizard looking at hyenas. I saw a blue jay watching the sea lions play. Penguins standing in a line, come on in the waters fine, everybody's coming to the zoo. Were you there when the gorillas came over the hill? Were you there when the silver back sat so close that like he wanted to scratch. Hey! Hey mister....."
Jennifer Pickering: And, you know, as we all know, when you're a kid, you'll pretty much explore any artistic possibility that gets put before you. And our team is really great at creating those little opportunities, a costume tent, roving artists, and a lot of jugglers, a lot of puppets. And things that will excite kids, but also keep the parents engaged. And then, on a totally different level, our star arts education program is LEAF Schools and Streets. So we have over 300 youth locally that come. And they participate as performers during the festival weekend. And so they'll come with their parents and actually perform alongside their mentoring teaching artist during the weekend. So it's really a dynamic mix of so many different ways that families and kids are involved.
Jo Reed: How many people come for the weekend, Jennifer?
Jennifer Pickering: Well, it's an interesting property that limits that. And that is 6000 people onsite a day. And that does not include kids under 10. So, you know, we have a bunch of those, obviously. But it does include all of our performing artists and our staff. So that's how many people are onsite, the 6000 plus the kids under 10, a day. So it's a small, very intimate, festival. And as we know, as festivals have really shifted in the past really 10 years, that so many festivals are 20,000 to 100,000 people. And LEAF is really more about an engaging intimate experience that takes you into so many different possibilities of art and music exploration.
Jo Reed: How many stages do you have?
Jennifer Pickering: We have five main stages. And they're all different sizes and different types of venues. So that you're never in a place where you're in a mass audience. It's, again, giving the audience they're part of the whole play, so to speak. That it's an interactive, very danceable, you can go meet the performers afterwards. A lot of workshops and the stages range from a typical larger main stage to little decorative and artistic tents that hold the Roots Family stage. And then, my favorite venue is actually our barn, the Lake Eden Events Barn, which was built by the Black Mountain College students. And it's a beautiful acoustically friendly, very intimate setting.
Jo Reed: You have two festivals a year because why not? One in May and one in October. I'm assuming that the site is used by the camp during the summertime?
Jennifer Pickering: Right. The site is used by the camp.
Jo Reed: Why that decision, seriously, to have it twice a year?
Jennifer Pickering: You know, truly it was a format that was already established there. And yes, it works good for the camp, the ebb and flow of their year. And the May festival works really great, especially for our LEAF Schools and Streets kids, because it's at the end of the programming for the year. So it allows them to really showcase. And then, the fall weekend, we always do during the third weekend in October. And for those of you who have visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, it's when our leaves are peaking. And it's kind of a great way to send off the end of the year. So, essentially, Spring is kind of that pivotal point that kicks into summer and then, the fall is kind of like, "Okay. Here we go into the winter" and a great finale for it.
Jo Reed: You know, I'm always curious about how you find performers. What's your system?
Jennifer Pickering: Well, you work with the NEA. And obviously one of the places we always go to is look and see, "Okay. Who's gotten National Heritage Awards? Who are the people out there that are the treasures that represent cultures." And for LEAF, specifically, we have a very small budget that we're working within. And we're a non-profit and we are limited by our size. So we're really looking for people who are the carriers of tradition. And who have that piece that they're passing onto future generations. So it comes in so many different ways, from listening to great radio stations to friends telling us about great musicians they've heard. We try to introduce people to music and cultures that they might not otherwise be able to experience. One thing that has always struck me is we love to travel. But travel isn't always accessible, either financially or physically or time wise. And there's so many places that you only know about through the news, like, Haiti and Rwanda. And we've been so grateful to bring extraordinary performers from Haiti. Emeline Michel
And this last festival, Boukman Eksperyans. And we actually have a LEAF international partnership program in Haiti, that we actually ended up bringing a whole group of our LEAF international youth from Haiti. And then, the same with Rwanda. But people can come and they can step into music from a place that they've never been to or they've just heard about through the news. And all of a sudden-- whether it's Haiti or Rwanda or Zimbabwe, all of a sudden, that place is not just a place that has war or strife or challenges. It's a place of beautiful traditions and amazing people. So it's a lot of searching.
Jo Reed: Let's just back track a little bit and tell me how LEAF in Schools and Streets began.
Jennifer Pickering: Okay. So LEAF Schools and Streets, I started in 2004. It really started from my observing my God kids, who all live in public housing, and watching them during the summertime have so little opportunity for positive direction to place all of their amazing energy. And one day a group of the kids had come to my house. And we have a lot of instruments in the house. And they quickly migrated to the instruments. And I went from just pulling my hair out and going, "Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do with the kids for the day," to all of a sudden, having this little band happening in my house lots of noise and cacophony. However, they were very focused and engaged in the instruments. And I started inquiring around, okay. What is happening in our local community? Specifically, housing communities, at that time, that allows for kids to have really good access to music or art? And to really feel they have a positive place to shine. So that's how LEAF Schools and Streets started. And then, starting to ask around town, "Okay. Who would be willing to support this idea?" The Arts Council was the first group that really said, "Oh, I see what you're wanting to do. And let's also do this in the schools first. So that that will give you some of the support from the North Carolina Arts Council. And it gives you a visiting artist residency roster so that you can connect in." And so LEAF Schools and Streets, we partner with about 30 different partners. Actually our strongest partners are the City of Asheville, so we do a lot of programming in the after school centers and the community centers. And, also, children first in communities and schools where they had homework programs and we would come in and provide the arts and music outreach enrichment piece. So we've built a team up locally of teaching artists. And then, we looked to see, okay, who's doing great work with kids, however, they really need the opportunity for music and arts to play a part in that? And so it's all built on partnerships and that real belief that we're all stronger together. And giving kids opportunities to explore and succeed as musicians and artists.
Music Up: "Deep down in my heart, I'm gunna let it shine. Deep down in my heart, I'm gunna let it shine. Deep down in my heart, I'm gunna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."
Jo Reed: You've been doing this for a decade now. Can you talk about some of the results that you've seen with the kids...
Jennifer Pickering: Oh, my gosh.
Jo Reed: ...who have participated in this?
Jennifer Pickering: Yes, absolutely. So over the past decade, we've been able to work with over 45,000 youth locally. And we work with about 5000 local youth every year. One of our star jazz players and our LEAF Schools and Streets Jazz Program, which is in partnership with the Delta House, his name is Kaliq. And Kaliq now plays the saxophone, as well as the clarinet. And he did, last night in downtown Asheville, he actually did his first solo to a fairly large crowd in downtown Asheville. So Kaliq was a really good middle school kid, who has some challenges with mild autism. And just had not really found his place, where he was shining. And he got involved in the LEAF Delta Jazz Program. And over the past three years now, he's gone from not being able to play a note to being able to play on any stage. He went to New Orleans for the first time. The whole jazz program, we took them to New Orleans last year. He has opened up for Preservation Hall. And Kaliq's belief in himself now and his possibilities, and you see him stand up on stage and shine. And he stands tall and the piece that people say so often, "Art saves lives." And almost any musician or artist that you talk to, they have that pivotal step in their life that they took that really was a lifesaving or, life reshaping moment. And Kaliq is one that comes to my mind of shining. And he will be, and he is, an extraordinary musician. And he was someone who easily could've fallen through the cracks. Or not had that ability to bring out what his potential is. And the other success that we've really seen specifically in the jazz program is the reading scores of the kids, how they have jumped tremendously. So it's really extraordinary. And you see most of the kids who go into the programs, the level of self-empowerment and self-esteem, it's pretty remarkable.
Jo Reed: Of course, they also then, as you say, get the opportunity to perform at the festival, which must be just an amazing high for them.
Jennifer Pickering: It really is. And it's quite challenging also. I mean, here they are, regardless of how long they've been working with their teaching artist. To have them come to a national and internationally recognized festival in their own backyard, with their parents in the audience, to get up on the stage with this international, national, local artist. And they become the performers. And that really is one of the shape shifting pieces of LEAF Schools and Streets.
Jo Reed: How did LEAF International begin? As though you didn't have enough on your plate.
Jennifer Pickering: You know, Jo, it's really just keeping your eyes opening and following what paths open up. LEAF International came out of my passion for global cultures. And I had been a fervent believer in traveling. And years ago, I was traveling to this little island called Beckway, off of the Grenadines. And my cousin has a house there. And I was there for two weeks and the first week was fantastic vacation. And the second week, I was starting to get antsy. And I started looking around. They have a thing called the Jump Up, which is this steel band comes every Thursday night and plays. And you go and you have a great time. And I started asking the question of how many kids on the island of Beckway are learning the local tradition of steel pan? So I walked down to the community school and asked to meet with the principal. And I said-- you know, I asked the question. And she said, "One girl on the island is and it's the governor's daughter." So I innocently said, "Well, if I can find a local teaching artist that would be willing to teach the kids, and we would be willing to pay them. And if I would find the local steel pans and have them made for the program, would you be willing to host a program?" And they said, "Absolutely." So that was in 2006. Now, over 60 kids on the island play steel pan. We actually had 10 of the kids from Beckway come to October Festival last year. And they were extraordinary steel pan players. The kids play regularly all over the island. And it has really changed the possibilities of what can happen with music on the island of Beckway. So that's how it started.
Jennifer Pickering: And the next piece was going to Rwanda, where we had worked with a performing artist named Jean Paul Samputu. And he said, "Oh, I've got a group of 25 kids that would love to have a small music program and learn the Rwandan traditions." And I was like, "Great." And I assumed by the way he had described them that the kids lived or were part of, either, an orphanage or a community center. So we arrived in Rwanda and we found a local teaching artist. And we had local drums made for the kids. And we ended up with a group of 25 street kids, who had literally been living on the streets, for some 10 years, and had raised themselves as a band of brothers. And here we are with drums and a teaching artist. So that was in 2006 and fast forward. And we still have 15 of the kids in the program. We have them now in a safe home. They're extraordinary young men. And they're all world class performers. And while it seemed insane at the time, where they really needed toothbrushes and shelter, what we were able to provide to them was a mentor and a teaching artist. And the music gave them a way to become, not only respectable, but seen differently in the eyes of others, who saw them every day. They no longer were just street children. They became extraordinary drummers and dancers and teachers. And our dream is to be able to bring them next May to LEAF. And we've been able to bring now five of our groups from our LEAF International programs. And every time we've been able to bring them, it's seemed like a miracle. And it's also been a life changing event for not only the kids leaving their country for the first time, and becoming international performers. But also, for everyone here in our local area who is able to engage with the youth and learn about their cultures at a whole different level.
Jo Reed: How many countries are you involved in, now?
Jennifer Pickering: We're now involved in 10 different countries. We really rely on partners to not only allow more opportunities to happen, but again, for all of us to become stronger and to give people the opportunity to be their best through music and arts.
Jo Reed: It's amazing how music and art really can connect people around the world. We all speak the language of music.
Jennifer Pickering: We all speak the language of music. And it's really the great equalizer.
Jo Reed: What have you learned, Jennifer, that was kind of unexpected, perhaps, when you began LEAF,19 years ago now?
Jennifer Pickering: Right. You know, in all these years, Jo, no one has ever asked me that. And that is a beautiful question. It almost really makes me want to cry. So what I have learned is the amazing, amazing amount of communities. And when I say communities, I'm speaking specifically about the artist and music communities that exist throughout our world. I had very little exposure to music and arts before I started LEAF. Again, my passion was global cultures. But it was not through the music and arts. And the first really powerful lesson that I learned was that it's the music and arts that keep the cultures alive, as well as allow people to step into them. Now, what I did not expect to find was all of these pockets of communities that really stay together and have this beautiful bond because of the music. I mean, right here in our own backyard, the Old Time Musicians Group. I knew nothing about that. But to watch how that community really, you know, speaks to each other and engages with each other in such a positive way. And it's because of that core music piece. And then, with the dance world, I had no concept that all these different little pockets of, you know, the salsa world, the contra world, the zydeco world, the Cajun world, the waltz world. They were all these little microcosms of cultures that really give the vibrancy to living. And one thing that years ago, after I had been doing this for about 10 years, I really realized that one of the things I believe in is living life like LEAF and like a festival. Bringing all those different aspects of arts and culture into your daily life, and sampling them in a way that gives you a vibrancy. And I don't necessarily need to, you know, dive fully into any of them. But being able to see each of those different expressions of arts and music has really given me the sense that this is the best way, not only to experience life. But also it gives the avenues for people to be their very best.
That is the founder and executive director of LEAF, Jennifer Pickering. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts.
The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.