As a dozen fifth- to seventh-graders with “N.C. Arts in Action” began their dance routine at Durham’s 39th annual CenterFest, pianist Julie Bradley broke into a jazzy version of the Johnny Nash classic “I Can See Clearly Now.”
It was an attempt to keep the rain up in the gray clouds that hung over Durham on Saturday morning, and maybe it did the trick. The rain stayed away for most of the day as thousands of fest-goers enjoyed a downtown turned over to a variety of visual and performing arts.
CenterFest is the Durham Arts Council’s signature street festival, and was expected to draw about 25,000 people before it ended Sunday. This year marks the second in a rejuvenated downtown that is now alive with restaurants, clubs and a highly popular performing arts center, and that helped put many patrons in a celebratory mood.
“It’s been percolating downtown for so long and now it’s exploded,” said Mas Sato, a consultant to a downtown Durham architectural firm who had his two children, Hana, 6, and Kenji, 3, in tow.
Two years ago, the arts council decided not to hold a CenterFest to rethink and reorganize the event. It had been in located in parking areas adjacent to Durham’s Central Park just north of downtown at the time. It came back with the move to the city’s center last year, and it appears, it is there to stay.
Lindsay Gordon, the arts council’s artist services manager, said applicants for the fest’s roughly 140 artists’ booths jumped nearly 60 percent from the previous year, from 177 to 283. While the biggest contingent is from North Carolina, 16 other states from as far away as Colorado are represented.
Brent Elliott, 10, a fifth-grader from Creedmoor, was enthralled with one of them, a booth of interactive pop art created by Jeffrey Kennedy of Florence, S.C. Many of his vibrant paintings had compartments, like one of a green pear with a small door that opened up to a three-dimensional display of an inch worm sitting in a parlor with the TV on.
Another painting of a bull terrier invited festival-goers to “Feed Me” with a marble that they popped into his mouth and then watched as it zigzagged its way down the terrier’s belly and out another hole at the bottom. Elliott’s head moved side to side with every turn of the marble, as if he was watching a hotly contested tennis match.
This was the first time he and his mom, Heather Strother, had gone to CenterFest. Her impression of it had to be music to Durham’s ears.
“I think it’s really cool,” she said. “I love all the culture and diversity in Durham. It’s really a growing place.”
Gordon said the fest also featured other expansions, including a sixth stage for music and Maryland-style crab cakes that joined the mix of food vendors.
CenterFest offers the typical kid fun at most festivals – a kids’ train ride, bounce house and an inflated slide – but it also gives children the opportunity to make art in special Kids Zones. In one, Khai Wright, 6, colored a lion mask after his mom, Danielle Carr, cut out the eye holes. That mask was for later; he’d already had his face painted to look like a snake.
They live in Raleigh, but became CenterFest volunteers this year and had the task of manning artists’ booths when they needed to take a break. Their morning shift was over, and they were now exploring the festival for the first time.
“It’s amazing,” Carr said. “How can you not like it?”