The word heritage in the Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival's name is not incidental. The founders were aware of Southwestern Pennsylvania's rich and varied cultural history and wanted to celebrate it through the arts. Thursday the festival opens for the 39th time, and the commitment to heritage has been key in planning programming from food booth specialties to an expanding Heritage Trail, said executive director Adam Shaffer.
The free festival continues from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Sunday at Twin Lakes Park east of Greensburg, It attracts more than 150,000 visitors annually to its 160 craft vendors, rows of food booths, performances on four stages, strolling acts, juried art exhibition and encampments. The latter include the Civil War-era Blue & Gray Brigade and the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation, marking the return of a Native American presence to the festival.
Heritage will be present in the Children's Area in Japanese and German craft activities, and in booths that specialize in, among others, Italian, Polish and Greek foods. Heritage shines through the handmade fishing plugs of Terry Keitz, Ernie DiMartino's ice carvings and the tongue-in-cheek delivery of YouTube hit "Pittsburgh Dad," aka Curt Wootton, who's a graduate of Hempfield High School.
The stages will reverberate with the sounds of the Old Time Fiddlers' Contest, begun in 1979; Slovenian polka; traditional and rock Celtic; symphony; jazz; Christian country; bluegrass; cigar box guitar; and two German bands, to name a few.
"Over 60 percent of Westmoreland County is of German heritage," Mr. Shaffer said. "In the 19th century, Greensburg had two German-language newspapers."
Two performances come with the partial support of a grant from Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour, an institutional relationship Mr. Shaffer revived last year. Jay Smar shares American and original folk and coal mining songs and old-time mountain, bluegrass and gospel music, stories and flat-footin' dancing. Prophecy Music Project featuring Kreative Pandemonium brings African sounds filtered through the Caribbean and South America.
"We're not a music festival," Mr. Shaffer said, explaining that successful music festivals depend upon gate receipts, and the festival remains free. Still, it accommodates a broad range of music on and off stage.
The Sunday Acoustic Showcase continues the legacy of the recently closed Keynote Cafe, Jeannette, with an all-day lineup of performers from around the county. Jeannette-based recording studio Local Commotion represents county bands with a booth handling T-shirt and CD sales. "The genre didn't fit the festival, but these are talented bands. We wanted to recognize them as creative, hardworking artists," Mr. Shaffer said.
The tree-shaded Heritage Trail, one of the fastest growing festival areas, will generate its own sounds via strolling banjo player Mean Mary James and Robert Mouland, who specializes in 18th-century music from the British Isles. Ruthanne Emilene Ankney, a mandolinist, will bring the European tradition of the Midsummer Pole (most familiar as Maypoles) to life through folk tales, music, dance and 50 floral garlands, Mr. Shaffer said.
Heritage crafts like quilting and blacksmithing will be demonstrated along the trail, historical society representatives will talk about Western Pennsylvania history and authors will discuss and sign books ranging in subject from local Bigfoot sightings (Stan Gordon) to Pittsburgh sports (Jim O'Brien).
Mr. Shaffer casts an inclusive net as he looks for groups or individuals to represent the many cultures of "not just Westmoreland County but all the surrounding counties as well." When he wanted to schedule an African American performance group, a festival board member told him that African Americans make up less than 1 percent of the county population and that festival attendees wouldn't be able to identify with the group. "I disagree. People are hungry to learn about other cultures," Mr. Shaffer told the board member, and scheduled as planned.
The festival's original definition of heritage was expansive, he said. There have been theme years such as Italian or Chinese, but he doesn't foresee a return to that practice because it would be "too limiting. We want to keep it broad."
Limited paid parking is available at the festival in private lots. Shuttle buses and wheelchair accessible vans will run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily from The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and St. Vincent College, Latrobe ($2 round trip). Information: 724-834-7474 or www.artsandheritage.com.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published July 3, 2013 9:00 AM