Here There Be Dragons: A Case for All-Ages Arts Events

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Gon KiRin illuminates downtown El Paso during the annual Chalk The Block Arts Festival in October. The 69-foot beast impressed spectators of all ages. Image: Rick Tate

I’ve got a decidedly uncool confession to make.

I have no desire to go to those massive festivals like Coachella or Burning Man.

This probably isn’t much of a confession for many people, as not everyone is into the whole “massive crowd of humanity” thing. It is for me, though.

I love to be among creativity. I love visual arts and performing arts, mixed with great examples of technology and engineering. I love sampling new and exotic examples of the culinary arts and seeing “everyday people” show off their personal expression through the way they dress.

The more I see any spectacle of free expression, the one thing I look for more and more is the family factor. Is this event something all ages can enjoy on similar levels?

This hit home when I took my family on our annual excursion to Chalk The Block Arts Festival. This three-day public arts fest held in October in Downtown El Paso, Texas brings in around 40,000 people each year to experience regional sidewalk chalk artists, local and international art installations, live music, and dance.

This year’s most popular draw, Gon KiRin, had just recently come from Burning Man itself and has made its way around Maker Faire. The 69-foot fire-breathing sculpture from artists Teddy Lo and Ryan Doyle is a mixture of found objects and LED lights–impressive during the day and breathtaking after dark.

To my husband and me, this was an incredible piece or art and engineering, captivating to look at, and surreal to experience.

For my seven-year-old, however, it was a dragon! Yes, she knew it wasn’t a living, breathing being, but it was a dragon nonetheless. It was a creature of magic and fire, straight from some of her favorite stories.

For many grown-ups, it was an experience in art and technology, but having our children with us turned it into a voyage into imagination.

It was being able to take in and appreciate something completely, while both my children were able to do so right along side of me, that helped me fully grasp the importance of family-friendly, yet artistically-driven events.

First off, I’ve learned family-friendly events tend to come with a less expensive ticket price than some events aimed at the “18 and above” crowd. Others have no admission cost at all.

I was always under the impression Burning Man was more of an organically, participant-driven event, which meant people would pay a nominal fee to camp out on public land. Everything else, being a “pay-what-you-can” community kitchen type of payment. This is true once they get on-site, but tickets to this week-long shindig range from around $400 to more than $1,000, and there are no refunds for the parts you don’t remember.

For music events like Coachella, I understand the cost a bit more, as you are getting to see some incredible live music performances. Still, $399 is a pretty big commitment, even if they do offer a “payment plan.”

Primarily, all age events don’t often break the three-digit price, and many times include family packages. One event that is on my definite “to-do” list someday, National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., has weekend passes running $30 to $80. Of course, there is also the flagship Maker Faire in San Francisco, and similar events worldwide now. We like to hit the free mini Maker Faire held the first weekend in November at most Barnes and Nobles stores.

Renaissance Faires are also a favorite. Our weekend Renaissance ArtsFaire in Southern New Mexico raised its price for this year… to $8 a person. Since they now have jousters, I’m not complaining. It is still less expensive than large-scale events like Texas Renaissance Festival in the fall, which is not a bad price at $30 gate fee for adults and $15 for children.

Events like art walks and block party-style festivals are often held throughout a community or historic district, with at least a few areas accessible for free. Chalk The Block is free to attend, and our regional balloon fest charges only for concert events. Getting on the ground for the mass launch has been free.

A favorite outdoor art-centric event for fellow GeekMom Evil Genius Mum is Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney, Australia, a non-profit exhibition promoting artists and sculptural works. It takes place along the scenic Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk, and it draws more than 260,000 visitors each year. This event is also free to the public.

GeekMom Karen Walsh, who enjoys taking the family to the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival and Conference each spring in Hartford, Connecticut, is able to enjoy performers from around the world, graffiti exhibitions, film, and other presentations for free.

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Balloon fests, renaissance faires and cultural events such as Dia de los Muertes celebrations are often entertaining to adults and youth alike. All images: Rick Tate.

Another reason I appreciate events that keep family in mind is they tend to have an abundance of interactive activities.

These activities go well beyond the standard carnival inflatables and face painting, but often include an emphasis on history, culture, science, literature, or other “educational” aspects cleverly hidden among the fun.

From personal experience, mini Maker Faire events have let my kids try their hand at coding, play with building sets, and operate robots. They’ve gotten to practice archery and falconry at Renaissance faires and make sugar skulls and paper marigolds at Day of the Dead events. As far as Chalk The Block, we’ve never come home “clean,” as our clothes are always covered with chalk dust from contributing to the Downtown area becoming one giant piece of collaborative street art.

In the past few years, we have seen some amazing things at Chalk The Block alone. Some of our favorites have included the Luminaria, a walk-through inflatable sculpture, where the colorful atmosphere is created by outside light sources. We’ve also experienced the movable menagerie of the Austin Bike Zoo, the car-lifting “Hand of Man” giant robotic sculpture, and danced to bands like Man or Astro-man? among the luminous jellies of the Billion Jelly Bloom, all while giant tentacles of artist Filthy Luker’s “Octopied Building” hovered from the city ballpark.

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Some of the variety artistic opportunities we’ve enjoyed over the years at Chalk The Block Arts Festival. All images: Rick Tate.

What we don’t see at these events is the over-consumption of alcohol, even at the festivals with wine and beer gardens. Public displays of affection don’t go beyond some romantic smooching (the “get a room” instances are practically nonexistent). Also, the costumes, body art, and appearance of guests and artists can sometimes be incredibly outrageous but never obscene. I never paid much mind to these details until I became a parent, and I now appreciate the self-restraint of family affairs.

This is not to say my husband and I don’t enjoy our kid-free date nights or that every party and event has to cater to all ages. Some family festivals even have after hours parties specifically for an adult audience in a nightclub-like environment. I know grown ups need their time to be around each other without the pressure and responsibility of keeping the family together.

However, something wonderful happens when you attend art or music festivals with children.

You notice the color, shape, and details of installations and exhibits more, particularly when you learn how they appear from another angle.

There are more excuses to stop and look things over.

There are places to get your hands dirty, take-home crafts and swag, and silly photo ops.

There are coves to explore and castles to conquer.

There are dragons.

And I’ve learned no one appreciates the wonders of dragons more than children… and those of us who are fortunate enough to see them through their eyes.