Tent-seekers must apply for arts festival

STATE COLLEGE – A typed sign glared down on Archie Smith Thursday as he drew a bow across a shiny wooden instrument, playing “The Irish Washerwoman” for a knot of onlookers.

The sign read: “Completely handmade in America by this guy” – a squiggled line pointed to Smith’s head – “working alone by himself.”

Smith of Mount Pleasant, N.C., traveled to State College this week for the latest of several consecutive appearances at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, an annual five-day collection of musical acts, art competitions and sidewalk sales. The festival draws artists from far afield, with works from Tennessee and Florida displayed along Penn State University’s Old Main.

And the competition can be fierce: One in five applicants are approved to take part in the festival each year, Smith estimated.

“I applied for a number of years before I ever got in,” Smith said. “A lot of it depends on the jurors and what appeals to them.”

Smith began making bowed psalteries, musical instruments comparable to zithers, as a hobby in the 1970s. By the ’90s, he was building them full time, obtaining rare woods online and fashioning designs into the curious-looking instruments.

“I started making them, then I taught myself to play. I can’t read music,” he said. Smith stopped occasionally to describe psalteries to customers; when one played a simple tune, Smith exclaimed, “Success has crowned your efforts.”

Last year, while using a table saw to work a piece of wood, Smith sliced off three fingers on his right hand. Doctors could reattach only two, he explained, but he recovered and kept making psalteries.

“I’m sorry it happened. But – deal with it,” he said. “It’s not going to stop me from doing what I love.”

A few tents down, as visitors strolled to South Allen Street for a jazz act and servings of cheese-packed struedel, Agustin Ruiz of Middle Island, N.Y., explained how he fashions purses and handbags from furniture upholstery and tree nuts that resemble elephant ivory.

Ruiz works tagua nuts, rough to the touch when they’re taken from rain forest trees, into smooth beads and toggles, then attaches them to purses bearing animal images. Some feature prehistoric horse images from the Lascaux Caves in France; one bore an image of a tiny Yorkshire terrier.

“Elephants will sell only if they’re walking, trunks-up. That’s the only way,” Ruiz, originally from Ecuador, noted.

On Thursday, visitors carried newly purchased works of art from tent to tent as they circled the festival. Some artists – including Patty Albin of Sunrise, Fla., who paints frames that match her husband, Mike’s, photographs – said the annual festival is a financial success.

“We’re back every year because it is,” Albin said.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.