An only-in-Seattle celebration that combines the city’s two most essential assets, the Arts in Nature Festival seeds a handpicked selection of Northwest artists within the sylvan grounds of Camp Long, a 68-acre park of forests and meadows and trails in West Seattle. Produced by the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, this year’s AIN Fest is the biggest in the event’s 19-year history, bringing 40-some artists and groups of every conceivable background and discipline to present, perform, create and collaborate among Camp Long’s rustic cabins and green spaces. Poet, activist and performance artist Nikkita Oliver is one of two headliners; the other is Total Experience Gospel Choir, a world-traveling civic institution under the leadership of Reverend Pat Wright. Word is Wright is retiring soon, making the choir’s two performances a big, bittersweet sendoff to a true hero of Seattle.
I spoke with David Bestock, DNDA’s executive director, about the evolution of AIN and what to expect from this year’s fest.
How did Arts in Nature get started?
The founder of Nature Consortium, Nancy Whitlock, founded the festival and founded Nature Consortium in 1998 and it was, I believe, her brainchild and her desire to bring together two of her great loves, art and nature, into a festival here in West Seattle. Just so we’re clear on what we’re talking about, Nature Consortium merged into Delridge Neighborhood Development Association in 2016. This is our third year running the festival and we’re happy to carry the torch of an amazing, unique festival that’s been somewhat under the radar, despite engaging a lot of well-known artists who are deeply immersed in the arts and cultural scene.
How did you come onboard?
Nature Consortium has had their offices at DNDA’s Youngstown Arts Center since it opened in 2006. And we’ve partnered with Nature Consortium over the years on different arts and environmental efforts. In 2016 their executive director was recruited to a job in Nebraska, her home state, so she approached us at DNDA and asked if we’d consider taking on the organization and programs, otherwise she wasn’t sure if they’d continue. Their programming is awesome—along with arts we have a contract with Seattle Parks Department to do restoration at 18 sites in 10 parks in West Seattle. We also, through Nature Consortium, inherited a contract with Seattle Housing Authority to do youth programming at High Point and New Holly engaging 250 youth at those sites in arts and recreational programming in the summertime.
When you peel back the onion, we do a lot of things, and it can seem like it’s all over the place, but we thrive on the integration of these different aspects. DNDA’s mission is “integrating art, nature and neighborhood to build and sustain a dynamic Delridge.” And that intersection is where we like to be. AIN epitomizes our work being set in a neighborhood and nature and highlighting the intersection of art and nature. At the festival, we’re able to give scholarships to people living in SHA and other low-income affordable housing sites. Access is a big priority for us and in particular access for low-income communities and communities of color, and youth.
The DNDA tagline of “Art, nature, neighborhood” encompasses all the important stuff in life. In your opinion, where do those things intersect?
Where they intersect is a very human place and speaks to basic human needs and want as humans to connect with each other, and also to place-making and how we create human-centric places that foster connection and collaboration. AIN epitomizes that, but we also do environmental arts classes for youth in our affordable housing, which also epitomizes that. When we can do this kind of environmental education through the arts for low-income youth of color, that’s where we like to live, those intersections that empower youth leadership and creativity and foster the next generation of environmental stewards.
Full disclosure: Despite loving art and nature and knowing of AIN for years, I’ve never been. It feels out of the way—but that’s kinda dumb. It’s just West Seattle. I wonder if that perception has kept the festival off the radar.
There’s lots of factors there but what you’re saying is true. I’m born and raised in Seattle. I grew up in Madison Valley, and before I worked in West Seattle I barely went there. I think there’s a perceived distance that’s somewhat true, but it’s quicker to get here than to Ballard from pretty much anywhere unless you’re already in Ballard.
And Camp Long sounds rad.
It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Seattle. There’s 10 cabins that folks can rent as a camping experience, and a big meadow and miles of trails and a ropes course and a climbing wall. It’s an amazing park. The Arts in Nature Festival is a wonderful introduction to Camp Long because we have art experiences in those cabins and along the trails and in the meadow. They’re welcome to all visitors but are awe-inspiring to first-time visitors. So much of our work in the festival is place-based. Worth noting is that our theme for this year’s fest is convergence, so we’re inviting visitors and participants to engage with each other and the artists, and the artists to engage with one another and the location itself, inviting that interaction and collaboration experience through the theme of convergence. Arts in Nature has always been dedicated to highlighting and promoting local artists. And it’s art of all kinds, installation art, visual art, music, theater and dance artists and sculptural artists. A real mixed bag of artistic experiences.
DNDA contracted with a local company to curate this year’s festival, yeah?
The festival had always been run in-house by Nature Consortium staff and once we took it over we ran it in-house for two years. This year we’re partnering with Jubilee Event Engineers to elevate the festival. When I spoke with Kristen Tsiatsios about her taking on the curatorial leadership of the festival, my two directives were, one, it’s important to DNDA and our work that we highlight artists of color and culturally center artists. We have a partnership with Seattle Public Library to provide equitable pay to Native and Indigenous artists, which I’m stoked about. That’s central to our work, strengthening the work of cultural artists and artists of color and paying them well. The second directive was to elevate the artistry of the festival and provide more jaw-dropping moments of “Wow, what is this? I can’t see this anywhere else.” That’s been present but it’s different every year. I want to elevate the level of artistry in terms of scale and what’s possible because I think there’s the potential of awe-inspiring moments in this amazing place and in working with Seattle’s top artists. I think it’s ripe for some inspiring, life-changing moments for attendees.
What are you most excited about this year?
I’m excited about our partnership with Jubilee this year and Kristen has put in a lot of work and talked with a lot of artists through her connections to bring high-caliber artists to the table. I’m grateful for that partnership and this year’s lineup. I’m from Seattle so I’ve been witnessing Reverend Pat Wright since I was a baby. My parents are folk dancers and my first freedom was running around the grounds of Seattle Center for Folklife—and I was there for the gospel showcase every year. I’m thrilled about that, because Pat Wright is such a part of the fabric of Seattle’s art and music scene and epitomizes collaboration. Total Experience has always been a diverse and welcoming choir and community. Very excited about them.
It’s cool to welcome Nikkita Oliver sharing her poetry—a lot of folks know her as repping the Peoples Party and throwing her hat in the ring for mayor. So I’m excited to have her in the mix as well. The list goes on. I’ve known Markeith [Wiley] for a long time and love his work in dance and mixing dance with other media. And artists whose names I know but I haven’t witnessed their work: ilvs strauss, Shin Yu Pai. I’m excited to see what they bring to the festival, which will be a surprise for me. There’s lots of other parts of the joy of this festival for me as the ED of DNDA is the sheer number of artists we get to pay to do this work. So often artist work is undervalued and I’m excited we get to pay 50 or more artists to be a part of this festival.
How do you recommend navigating the festival? Any tips or tricks?
When you come we’ll have maps and programs for folks. If you’re there to see a specific act pay attention to the map and schedule. But otherwise just wandering around and heading into the cabins and trails you’ll come across different installations and performative experiences. For me, that‘s a big part of the joy, and witnessing how different people engage in it. We have hands-on art activities for kids and a lot of the work we do is centered around youth, so for me witnessing young people engaging in arts and meeting neighbors and kids of other cultures is the highlight for me. We have food trucks and a beer garden so you don’t need to bring anything, but if you come plan to be there for a few hours because the different activities and presentations are spread out chronologically and spatially. Come and give yourself time to wander and soak in the different experiences. And bring a friend.