Three Rivers Arts Festival opens Friday for 10 days of free fun, culture

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Public artworks that address issues as varied as turning clothing into a renewable resource, waste into compostable sculpture, and thoughts toward what one would wish to experience before dying are among the features of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, which opens Friday and runs through June 15 in Point State Park, Gateway Center and the Cultural District, Downtown. Other programming will include music, dance, theater, poetry, films, crafts and a juried art exhibition.

The free annual festival, in its 55th year, draws more than 400,000 visitors. This year is the sixth that it has been under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Festival director Veronica Corpuz, who is also trust director of festival management and special projects, said the festival "seeks to be broad, inclusive and to have high quality. The challenge is how to achieve that over multiple genres and also multiple perspectives" to match its diverse audience.

Corporate sponsorship and foundation support provide the largest portion of the festival budget. A goal is to grow the number of individual donors, a more recent income source, Ms. Corpuz said.

"The number of free festivals in the country is diminishing," she said. "There isn't another art festival that has this much free music, hundreds of artists selling their work, public art, performance. In one weekend, you can take in two different dance performances, a comedy show and catch a film at the Harris Theater, all for free."

Stage headliners include Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Kaiser Chiefs, Jake Bugg, The Smithereens and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Squonk Opera and Bricolage will debut works and the "Complaints n'at Choir" will localize an international project by transforming Pittsburgh grievances into song.

The major festival themes this year are art and environment, and Pittsburgh as a place of socially engaged art practices, Ms. Corpuz said. The "Complaints n'at Choir" is a good example of the latter. Complaint Choirs of the World started in 2005 in Helsinki and spread to Birmingham, England; St. Petersburg, Russia; Chicago and many other cities.

"Political song writing. Woody Guthrie crossed with a jazz history of Pittsburgh. ... This is the public response to [artist Christiane D's] inquiry," Ms. Corpuz said. "How far have we come since Pittsburgh was designated most livable city? How far do we have to go? It's reflection with a certain amount of levity."

"Last year, people would read the [public art] signage because they were curious. What is this? When presented with something out of the ordinary -- which this whole festival is -- they want to learn, they want to engage," she said.

There will be surprises in the popular Artist Market and the Juried Visual Art Exhibition, too, by virtue of their selection by jury. This ensures a new look every year, she said.

A record 338 artists from 30 states will show in the Artist Market, with artists changing several times during the festival. There will be eight emerging artists offering wares ranging from ornate origami to refurbished light boxes made out of repurposed materials, Ms. Corpuz said.

The Visual Art show, meanwhile, "reflects the jurors' palette and aesthetics. It's not a 'best of.' It's a slice of the current state of artmaking" within a 150-mile radius of Pittsburgh, she said.

Cash awards totaling $10,000 will be distributed to Artist Market exhibitors and $5,000 in awards at the Juried Art exhibition, where a people's choice award has been added.

"That you can meet somebody, you can talk to them about their work" is a quality that Ms. Corpuz particularly likes about the Artist Market. "You can touch the art and talk with the artist in real time, face to face, and understand how they made it. Whether you purchase something or not, you can still have that experience. Feel free to talk to the artists. Nine out of 10 welcome a chance to talk. They've chosen this format for a reason."

Festival visitors will have at least two other opportunities to meet artists. An open house will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

Several of the 53 artists included in the Juried Visual Art Exhibition will be present as will Carlan Tapp, whose "The China Express" comprises 40 digital images that document people and places affected by coal as it's mined and shipped across the country by train bound for China. Mr. Tapp will give a free public talk at his exhibition at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Also, Detroit artist Susan Goethel Campbell will be at her exhibition "Portraits of Air" at the Trust 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Friday evening.

Ms. Campbell crowd-sourced this installation of more than 100 air filters during last year's arts festival. Participants were asked to hang the filters in places of their choice to measure air pollution. Ms. Campbell will review the results.

There's a lot packed into the 10 festival days whether specific events or just the way its presence visually reconfigures the city, "giving someone a reason to take pause and to reflect," Ms. Corpuz said.

Sculptures by Alexandre Arrechea, part of a series earlier installed along Park Avenue in New York, are an example. Pedestrians come across them in a "pop-up, surprise way," Ms. Corpuz said.

"They disrupt your everyday habit of seeing the environment. Twenty-foot-tall steel sculptures -- you have to stop and look at them. Then maybe you look at the buildings around them, maybe see them differently, maybe see architecture differently."

Visitors decide where and how much of their time to spend, Ms. Corpuz said.

"It's an open invitation, it's not a mandate. If you want to delve further, you may. We provide a contact to open up curiosity. The hope is that it lingers for an hour, a week, a year."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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