GREENFIELD — Every October, it happens. Some 65,000 people crowd the streets of downtown Greenfield for four days of fried food and festivities.
And each year, organizers of the Riley Festival seek to remind festival-goers about the man at the heart of their celebration: James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” a man whose art inspires writers today.
Every fall, tucked in venues on the outskirts of the festival, are contests that welcome poets, painters, musicians and more to show off their talents.
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The Riley Festival contests, from fiddling to photography, are in some ways the backbone of the whole affair, organizers say, paying subtle homage to the artist who brought them all together.
Leslie Iles-Pruitt’s heart was still racing when she stepped down from the stage.
Participating for the second time in the annual Poets at the Podium contest, the Greenwood resident drew applause from all and tears from some of the crowd as she read a piece she wrote in memory of her daughter, Anna.
Anna was 16 years old when she was killed in a car accident 16 years ago. And in one grief-filled afternoon, Iles-Pruitt penned a tribute to her teen daughter who would never grow up.
Perhaps the most fitting of the artistic competitions taking place during the four-day festival to honor the Hoosier Poet, Poets at the Podium gives area writers a chance to share their work publicly — some for the very first time, organizers said.
Just 24 of the area’s bravest writers are allowed to participate in the contest each year. Three judges position themselves throughout the audience under the entertainment tent at the festival’s southern-most end to listen to the readings and decide which is worthy of top honors.
Reading her writing aloud always brings a wave of emotions for Iles-Pruitt, but she admits she loves the rush. She grew up reading James Whitcomb Riley’s poems in school, and they helped her find the courage to do some writing of her own.
Elizabeth Kuhn of Greenfield hadn’t participated in an art contest at the Riley Festival since she was a teenager. But this year, something told the 26-year-old to give it another shot.
So in the days leading up to the festival, she found an old record album in her basement and looked up some instructions for turning it into a clock. In honor of the poet for whom the festival is named, she embellished it with Riley décor and handed it over to the judges with a smile.
Her entry joined hundreds of others at the home arts and quilt show, which offers residents nearly 200 categories in which to participate. Paintings are displayed alongside quilts and baked goods and numerous other crafts. The contest, sponsored each year by the Hancock County Extension Homemakers, is one of the most popular competitions during the four-day festival. Hundreds of local crafters, like Kuhn, submitted entries this year to be displayed in the courthouse annex over the weekend, each with its own unique flair.
Sarah Kesterson of Greenfield was one of a crowd of extension homemakers who greeted visitors eager to see the projects displayed there and cast their vote for the People’s Choice award.
Kesterson, who has participated in or helped organize the contest since 1974, said her favorite part of the contest is seeing the great work locals have created.
“I love to see the variety of crafts that come in,” Kesterson said. “I love the people and to see the same faces year after year.”
Honing their craft
She strolled through the racks of paintings, looking over at the bright colors with a slight smile.
Though she doesn’t consider herself an artist, Cindy Carey said she loves to admire art, especially works by those just starting out.
This year, she and her husband, Joe, visited the Riley Festival for the first time. As they wandered through the streets visiting the vendor booths and grabbing a snack here and there, the Indianapolis couple made sure to walk through the Creative Arts and Event Center to see the canvases coated by local artists.
This year’s participants were encouraged to use the Riley Festival’s theme, “Indiana,” — a Riley poem that also served this year as a nod to the state’s bicentennial — to draw inspiration for their artwork, organizers said. The contest’s top honorees receive cash prizes, and visitors are encouraged to vote for their favorite piece.
The Careys meandered around the displays, stopping occasionally to examine a piece in more detail.
As an image featuring cornfields and the Indiana state flag caught Carey’s eye, her husband called her over to a painting of young woman holding a fluffy white cat, painted against a teal backdrop.
They laughed, trying to choose a favorite, and then stepped on to see the next.
Shirley Schlegel loves to see excited faces of amateur photographers, young and old, as they drop off their photographs to be displayed in the Riley Festival’s annual photography contest.
For more than six years, she’s staffed the drop-off table in the courthouse annex where dozens of locals stop by to turn in their entries. She loves to greet them, to see their smiles and the thrilled looks in their eyes as she pins their entries up for the world to see.
About 200 photographs are entered and judged in the festival’s annual contest, organizers said. Participants are asked to submit pictures that showcase faces and scenes from around Hancock County.
Melanie Blakely of Greenfield participated in her first contest this year, submitting four photographs, three of which featured the pair of bald eagles that made their home in a tree near the intersection of Apple and New roads in Greenfield.
Blakely jokingly refers to herself as a member of the eagle paparazzi, always trying to catch the majestic birds in the right light to make the perfect photo.
Keep an eye on the Daily Reporter for winners lists from the Riley Festival contests. We’ll publish the names of the top honorees as they are made available.