Photographing Felts Park

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Photo by Pat Jarrett
Photo by Pat Jarrett

By Donald Kim

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Pat Jarrett, a photographer working with the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH). He’s been documenting the artists who perform in Felts Park (Galax, VA) for almost 4 years now.

When asked, “What’s special about Felt’s Park?” Jarrett laughed and said, “Absolutely nothing. I think it’s special because it’s flat. But it’s where the music happens.”

Felts Park is home to both Houstonfest (a bluegrass, country, and old time festival created in memory of Houston Caldwell) and the Old Fiddlers’ Convention (the world’s oldest and largest fiddlers’ convention).

“Virginia is home to countless regional traditional music styles throughout the state.” explains Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program at VFH, “It is just an integral aspect of life down there, and so much of the social interaction and community gatherings center around it.  You’ll see multiple generations of family members together enjoying one another around the music, it’s as much about the fellowship as the music.”

A new photo exhibit, “7 Days in August,” will focus on the musicians that make Felts Park special. Photos by Pat Jarrett will be showcased alongside “Galax Through the Decades,” a collection of Galax ephemera and history assembled by Marianne Kovatch. The gallery will be viewable at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax through August 15, 2016.

Jarrett describes the events at Felts Park as “magical,” and when asked “why?” He responded, “It’s the scale of the thing. It’s the talent. It’s the music. The people are what makes it the best. You meet all sorts from all over the place. Last year there was a fiddler from Nepal – You meet people from literally the other side of the globe who have come to play music in Galax. These people spend seven days playing music almost ceaselessly. I show up and they’re playing music, and when I leave at 3am and they are playing music still. The dedication to the craft and the art is really something to behold.”

The process of choosing photos for the exhibit about Felts Park was “brutal.” Jarrett started with around 50 photos, then whittled the selection to less than 20. He said, “Once it gets down to the last couple images, you feel like you’re cutting into bone.” But what we are left with is a cross section of Galax characters, and a compelling visual record of Felts Park.

Jarrett’s photos don’t capture what happens on stage, rather they capture what happens backstage and in the camping ground. So who are some of these backstage characters? Jarrett said, “Kill-Basa Bill aka Bill Guthrie is one. He passed away in 2014, but he was such a character. He was always dressed in tie-dye, and gave massages in his camp. His name was ‘Kill-Basa’ Bill because he was a bass player with fingers as big as Kielbasas. There is also a picture from the soup kitchen, which is a meeting place for everybody. At midnight, a cup of hot soup is great. And there is Harold Mitchell, who is the MC, is in the show.  He’s iconic.  He always has a Stetson cap that is a little bit jaunty. In one photo there was a shadow being cast from the stage, so there is just a silhouette of the jaunty white cap. I didn’t catch everybody, and there are some places I missed, but those are some people in the show I wanted to make sure were represented.”

I asked Jarrett if he was going to keep photographing the performers in Felts Park. He responded, “I think I have to now. I’ve been going for 3–4 years – I’m just scratching the surface.”

You can see “7 Days in August,” which includes Pat Jarrett’s photos of Felts Park—along with a history of the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention—through August 15 at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax, Virginia.