Waco Cultural Arts Fest 2021: A Healthy Dose of Happiness

Art for all and experiential art experiences are the foundation of the Waco Cultural Arts Fest.

“Art.” Just say the word and most folks get the heebie-jeebies. After all, isn’t “art” a picture that makes no sense, a poem you don’t understand, or a song that sounds like musicians tuning their instruments?

That is, art is something people make who are completely unlike you, right?

Thankfully, that’s not the Waco Cultural Arts Fest (WCAF), not when it started in 2004 and not the 2021 edition that runs from October 15 – 17 in Indian Spring Park along the Brazos River.

Returning after skipping 2020 due to COVID-19, this year’s scaled-back — but still free! — festival has kept its staple events: hands-on art activities for children and adults, a wide array of arts and crafts vendors, and an eclectic lineup of musical performers.

Art for All

The WCAF exists thanks to the good-natured yet indomitable Doreen Ravenscroft. She moved to Waco in 1978 with her husband Bill, who spent decades working for global candymaker M&M Mars before his retirement. Although arts organizations such as the Historic Waco Foundation and the Waco Symphony were well established when she arrived, Ravenscroft ultimately saw the need for a wider-reaching community arts event.

Ravenscroft launched the first WCAF in 2004 with a clear vision in mind and help from a handful of community leaders.

“Our biggest thing was that it should be a festival that is free because of the children we really needed to reach and families that we really needed to reach with an arts experience,” Ravenscroft explains. “Perhaps they couldn’t afford the gate. … we decided the festival should be free as a community, family event. And that’s what we’ve tried to do over the years.”

Doreen Ravenscroft has been the driving force behind the Waco Cultural Arts Fest since its inception.

Ravenscroft also saw the festival’s mission as being more than the passive viewing and appreciation of artwork. Instead, she was determined that the experience include the process of making art by young and old, novice and expert, with joyful abandon.

“It’s wonderful to see,” she says. “Dads and moms sitting next to sons. There are children and grandchildren making something experiential. We found that so many young parents wanted to get in on it too. So, if the parent wants to sit down it’s much nicer if the parent is doing a piece of work and not trying to do their child’s piece of work because then they were interacting so much better.”

So what does Ravenscroft want people to take away from the festival?

She has a ready answer: “Happiness. A nice day with family. A good day. That’s what we want them to take away, that art was good for them. Art made them slow down, art made them come together to do something that perhaps at home they might not do.”

This has proven to be a winning formula. After spending several years at Heritage Square in downtown Waco, the festival moved to its current home at Indian Spring Park and regularly attracts up to 20,000 people during its annual three-day run.

Waco Cultural Arts Fest 2021

By 2019, the WCAF was composed of six festivals: ArtsFest, WordFest, MusicFest, ScienceFest, DanceFest, and FilmFest. While DanceFest and FilmFest were cancelled this year and ScienceFest is online, festival goers still have multiple arts and entertainment activities to choose from:

  • MusicFest: Local favorite Johnny Joe Ramos headlines the main stage on Friday night, and on Saturday, Oxford Comma, Martian Folk, and Pride and Joy open for festival headliner Del Castillo. On Sunday afternoon, the Waco Community Choir performs.
  • ArtsFest: Kids and adults can enjoy multiple arts activities, face painting, and more over the course of the weekend.
  • WordFest: Across the street from Indian Spring Park in the Waco Convention Center, hear readings and open mic sessions, learn at writing workshops, and attend panel discussions.

Attendees can also shop among multiple arts and craft vendors at the Artist Market Place.

Del Castillo and Johnny Joe Ramos headline the musical lineup at the 2021 WCAF.

This year’s smaller festival is due to COVID, which presented new challenges for Ravenscroft to find sponsors and made it, in her words, “almost like starting over again.” Plus, even though 80% of the WCAF is outdoors, she recognizes people want to know they’re going to be safe while attending it.

Bridge of Souls

The impact of COVID on the WCAF extends beyond sponsorships and logistics: the over 600 victims it’s claimed in McLennan County. To honor them, Ravenscroft launched the Bridge of Souls project earlier this year. Local and regional artists as well as others who wanted to commemorate lost loved ones painted 600 banners for display at this year’s festival.

“Each one is a person, and the silhouettes are just symbolic. They are no particular person unless the banner has a name on the bottom because someone has painted it for that person, but each banner will represent someone who has passed with COVID,” she explains.

A ceremony will also be held from 2:15 pm to 3 pm on Sunday afternoon at the festival’s main stage in Indian Spring Park.

Still, while the Bridge of Souls makes for a more somber experience this year, the festival’s ultimate payoff for Ravenscroft remains the same.

“You’re so tired at the end of the festival because it’s 72 hours plus of solid work,” she says, “but the best thing is to see a great big painted canvas with two little feet beneath it at the bottom. You might see the eyes at the top, but the picture is being shown to everyone. And children are walking out with those. What is more rewarding, you know? Pride, accomplishment, perhaps never painted before … that’s what it’s all about.”

Just remember: No heebie-jeebies allowed.

Visit Waco Cultural Arts Fest for complete schedule information and the latest updates.

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Mark Roy Long's various incarnations have included college English instructor, book publisher, freelance writer, editorial content manager, and professional lawn mower. He is a devotee of craft beer, disc golf, and live music. A long-time Waco resident, he was tired of asking, “What’s going on around town?” and decided to answer that for himself... and anyone else who wanted to know.

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