Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival begins today

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“Emma the Giraffe” is the story of a sad little giraffe who is ignored by the other young animals because they don‘‍t understand her. She lives with autism and searches for friends who can appreciate her uniqueness.

The children’‍s book was written and illustrated by artist Sheryl Yeager, who herself lives with autism. The story has a happy ending, thanks to a kindly elephant, who “accepts her for what she is,” Ms. Yeager said.

Ms. Yeager is among 160 artists and craftspeople who will show in the Artist Market of the 40th annual Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival, which opens today at Twin Lakes Parks, east of Greensburg, and continues through Sunday.

The 54-year old Crafton resident has an affinity for elephants. Her brightly colored, whimsical pastel paintings of the large animals captured two awards at the Westmoreland Art Nationals, the $700 Best of Show Award for “The Pinkest Elephant” and the Graphics Award of $200 for “The Fall Gray Elephant.” 

The Art Nationals is a nationally competitive juried exhibition affiliated with the festival. The juror was Bud Gibbons, professor of art at Penn State University, New Kensington. Selection of works for the show, and of awards, was done without knowing backgrounds of submitting artists.

Ms. Yeager‘‍s pastels were included in the part of the exhibition hung at Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood, from May 31 to June 11. A second portion of the exhibition, showing at the festival, does not include her work.

In recognition of her achievement, Ms. Yeager was offered a booth at the festival and will be participating in the Artist Market for the first time. While her art will not be in the festival Art Nationals display, multitudes of vibrant, cheerful animals will populate her booth, including frogs; birds both local and tropical; insects like ladybugs, dragonflies and butterflies; and farm animals like chickens or her “Astonishing Pigs.” She will also have copies of “Emma the Giraffe” and greeting cards for sale, and will demonstrate pastel drawing for one hour each day.

Ms. Yeager said she likes to paint animals “because they’‍re not judgmental or intimidating.”

When she was in her early 30s, Ms. Yeager took art classes at Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh and said it gave her life meaning. She tried oil, acrylic and watercolor painting, but pastels spoke to her. She did well with watercolor, she said, “but my work looked so much better in the pastels.” Since then she‘‍s exhibited and garnered awards at shows in and out of state including, in 2011, a red ribbon from Art Ability, Bryn Mawr Hospital’s international juried art competition and a blue ribbon from the Sister Kenny International Art Show in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

She usually paints from photographs, some of which she takes when traveling, particularly in the many zoos she’‍s visited. In Mexico she was photographed with an iguana perched on her shoulder, which inspired a painting, and images of turtles and fish resulted from snorkeling in the Bahamas. She said she‘‍s looking forward to a trip to Washington, D.C., in September in conjunction with a mental health conference, where she will visit the zoo there and the Smithsonian for the first time.

Ms. Yeager is also a sports fan, and “used to be real talented in sports” herself when younger, playing softball, volleyball and ping pong and swimming. Now, “I’‍m more a Pirate fan than any other sport,” she said. She and a friend attended all of the home games when in high school, and on her limited budget she was to purchase tickets for 16 games this year. “I love the Pirates games.”

Other than Ms. Yeager‘‍s pastels, artists familiar and new will show pottery, woodworking, jewelry, glass and fiber; vendors will serve barbecue, pierogis and raspberry pie; reggae, polka and symphonic music will be heard from four stages; children will be treated with “Festival Firsts” discoveries; authors and historical society members will talk about their passions; and 150,000 visitors will wander the shady lakeside park that for four days in July dresses up in red, white and blue.

Festival buses and wheelchair accessible vans will run from Saint Vincent College and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. They operate from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily with the last bus to the festival leaving at 7 p.m. Round trip fare is $2; children younger than 10 ride free. Limited fee parking is available on privately owned grounds near the festival. Information and directions: www.artsandheritage.com. See the Weekend Mag section of today’‍s Post-Gazette for a schedule of stage events.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. 

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