Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival Celebrates 70th Anniversary

This year, about 225 artists from 30 states will represent 11 different media, including the art of watercolor, of jewelry design, of woodwork, and of ceramics.

Fairhope Artist Booth Paintings
Photo: Stephen Savage

On a usual day, Fairhope, Alabama, holds about 20,000 people. This "Carmel of the South," sitting on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, is a charming town with a deep love for the arts.

For three days each March, however, Fairhope packs in an extra 250,000 people.

Typically, when that many people fill a small town for a weekend, they fill a stadium. But here, they fill an arts festival. The Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival is one of the oldest arts festivals in the country, and this year—its 70th anniversary—will be among its biggest. The pandemic cancelled its 2019 show and curtailed its 2020 show, so Fairhope has three years' worth of celebrations to fit into these three days.

Fairhope is a juried festival, and artists from all over the country apply to earn a booth here. This year, about 225 artists from 30 states will represent 11 different media, including the art of watercolor, of jewelry design, of woodwork, and of ceramics. Visitors can find pieces selling from about $30 to $3,000.

Fairhope Artist with Prize
Stephen Savage

"With the festival having been around for so long and being choosy with which artists it exhibits, it's become prestigious for the arts community. It attracts visitors, too, because they know they're going to see really high-quality work that they can't see anywhere else," says Marissa Thetford, a Fairhope native and festival promoter.

What makes this festival a stand-out, however, is a more intangible form of art: the art of Southern hospitality. Beyond the festival grounds, more than 100 downtown boutiques and galleries will welcome visitors with special merchandise and sales; restaurant tables will spill out onto sidewalks to offer seats to guests. The community even "adopts" visiting artists, inviting them to dinner and bringing them breakfasts, volunteering as booth sitters, and pulling wagons of drinks through the festival to keep artists refreshed. This is a town that knows a warm welcome is the most important artform.

"We believe Southern hospitality is very, very important," says Vicky Cook, chair of the 2022 festival. "All of these touches are really important. They say a lot about our community, and how much they care and appreciate all of the people coming here to enjoy the crafts and the food."

It's a circular relationship: While the local arts community supports the festival, the festival supports the local arts community. Festival proceeds foster the artists of tomorrow, supporting arts education for school children, theater groups, special needs artists, as well as scholarships for high school students. Local children even have an exhibit here, too. For the past 70 years, the arts here have grown in tandem with the festival, and now, art is simply engrained in life in Fairhope.

"Growing up, I had the opportunity to try every kind of craft activity that I wanted to. It was common to want to do one kind of art or another," says Cook. "I was very hands-on [with art] growing up because I saw everyone else in our community being very hands-on."

The result is a town of people who create art, who appreciate art, or—like Cook—who collect art. For these three days, the entire town comes together to share that love with others. Visitors can return home with a new painting, a unique piece of jewelry, or the current trend, an outdoor sculpture.

Some people, however, find the ultimate souvenir: a new hometown. Fairhope's Southern hospitality may be a little too effective. It's not rare for a new Fairhope resident to be last year's festival attendee.

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"That's like every time I meet someone new!" Thetford laughs. "They'll say they came into Fairhope, shopped, enjoyed life on the bay, and then decided, 'Oh, we should move there!'"

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