“LAAFF just comes together. It’s basically anyone who shows up,” explains Erin Scholze, Arts2People’s vice president. That freeform approach might sound unhinged when it comes to planning a festival, but for Asheville’s strictly local Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival, less (structure, that is) is more.

LAAFF wants you: Come learn to juggle, make a dress, paint with your feet or just dance, dance, dance. Photo by Jen G. Bowen

“If someone quits doing something, we don’t ever look for another person to fill in,” Scholze says. That leaves the door open for fresh acts, art forms and ideas. After all, you can be oversaturated with art cars and zombie walks—and then it’s time for three-story bicycles and giant recycled squids.

What’s new?

This year’s LAAFF is the seventh annual installment of the festival, and while it’s more of the same Asheville celebratory mayhem (yes, there will be art cars, zombies and tall bikes—for more on tall-bike rider Mike Mooney, see this week’s Outdoors), there’s still plenty to discover.

Get Your Freak On Photo Booth: Faces of Asheville photographer Jen Bowen has been collecting costumes for a Lexington Avenue-centric photo booth. In the spirit of Old West theme parks, where visitors can dress like outlaws and have old-timey sepia-tinted photos snapped, Bowen’s booth is an opportunity to dress in over-the-top costumes worthy of a sideshow.

Costumes encouraged: Wear what makes you happy.

Freaky Tiki Lounge: “We’ve received feedback in the past that people wanted a place for DJs to be represented,” Scholze says. And since LAAFF has never been dominated by jam bands, an all-DJ area made sense. So, when DJ jOshU stepped forward to corral area spin doctors in the courtyard near Mela Indian Restaurant, an impromptu open-air dance club was born.

Interactive events: That old Nike slogan, “Life is not a spectator sport,” pretty much applies. While LAAFF is filled with performers, the audience plays an important role, too. This year, festivalgoers can make their mark at a variety of workshops and live-art happenings. For instance, the Asheville juggling club will teaches tricks of the trade. And at HoneyPot, Emily Balcken hosts a sew-your-own art clothes experience. You can also learn basket weaving, bamboo flute-making or check out a demonstration by Unifire. WNC Magazine hosts a canvas dance—like finger painting for the feet, set to music. There’s even an, ahem … kissing booth.

Looking for something a little less hands on? Check out the work of Asheville Mural Project, on display at the I-240 overpass where the main stage is located. In the same area, artists Bob Seven and Phil Cheney interact with each other’s work, and with hula hooper Melanie MacNeil. And (just when you thought you’d hit creativity overload) live artists will fill canvases next to the electric stage.

Guided by voices: LAAFF’s unique mission

by A.M.

Kitty Love, the mastermind behind nonprofit arts promoter Arts2People and creator of the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival, says she’s felt at times “like the pawn of some ascended master.” A very community-oriented ascended master, at that.

For Love (who, seven years ago, had just opened the since-closed Lexington Avenue-based art gallery Sky People), those directions were delivered with build-an-ark clarity.

“The purpose of the festival was to promote Lexington as an important piece of the cultural community, and to support the businesses because a lot of them were based in creative ideas,” she says. “Also, just to promote the idea of moving the money around in a local fashion.”

Inspired, at least idealistically, by the Burning Man project (an annual art-and-community event held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert), Love says her goal for LAAFF was “to create a cultural upheaval of radical self-expression.” However, unlike over-the-top, remotely located Burning Man, LAAFF attendees don’t “have to wear a space suit and travel to the middle of nowhere,” she says.

Along with that concept of radical self-expression (festivalgoers are invited to arrive in costume, participate in interactive events and even apply for mini-grants to produce their own LAAFF performances and installations) comes what Love calls “radical self-responsibility for creating one’s own community.”

“The idea is stolen from Burning Man,” she says. “Produce as much if not more than you consume.”

LAAFF’s strictly local policy is a means of leading by example. Visitors to the festival have the opportunity to experience just how many locally made products and services are available within Asheville. And while the day-long celebration is all about fun and games, Love hopes attendees walk away with the idea that they can make the choice to support the local economy.

So, seven years into LAAFF’s colorful evolution, how does the event’s instigator view her creation?

“It’s the idea of the incredible beauty and majesty of each person’s individual artistic bent, and giving that a vessel,” she muses. “It’s already evolved past the mission of celebrating Lexington Avenue. The new frontier is celebrating grassroots creative culture.”

Art-o-matic for the people

by — A.M.

Fantastical times two: Artist Phil Cheney created this year’s LAAFF poster with mirror images. Courtesy LAAFF

My elementary school art teacher was big on paint-by-numbers, the “proper” way to draw a tree and memorizing the titles of works by the masters. Despite him, I grew up to love visual art. But the first time I saw local visionary artist Bob Seven set up his imagery-emblazoned Emerge-N-See bus (complete with colorful folk paintings and life-size games), I knew I’d encountered a real art teacher. Seven might be a professor in the university of life, but his hands-on approach to visual art makes creative work immediately accessible both to children and adults.

The same can be said of painter/illustrator Phil Cheney (long known as the live painter with local music collective Snake Oil Medicine Show), though Cheney considers himself somewhat of a student at Seven’s knee.

“He’s this amazing creative wizard,” Cheney says of his friend. The two applied for mini-grants from Arts2People to bring an interactive arts program to this year’s Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival. That hands-on experience takes place under the I-240 overpass at the north end of Lexington Avenue, where Cheney and Seven plan to set up an artist’s corral, including hula hooper Melanie “MelMacPink” MacNeil of Asheville Hoops and live painter Nicole Potter.

“When Snake Oil plays, we’ll all paint,” Cheney promises of himself, Seven and Potter.

Though Cheney is no longer a fixture with that band, his work (poster art, CD covers) remains linked to the group. The colorful, fantastical caricatures that Cheney created over the years seem a fitting extension of Snake Oil—though one of his murals is equally at home at Asheville Pizza company on Merrimon Avenue. Cheney’s art has also graced the posters for the French Broad River Festival and the Sherman, N.Y.-based Our Fest for more than a decade.

This year, the artist was hand-picked to craft the poster for LAAFF. Of the fanciful, airborne characters he designed, Cheney says, “It’s sort of like these people are all up in the sky like they jumped on a trampoline and then got snapped into place and freeze-framed.”

The finished piece also showcases Cheney’s latest passion: creating mirror images.

Inspired by both his photographer friend Rene Treece and the evolution of his own ideas, documented in his sketchbooks, Cheney used computer programs to duplicate and reverse his images. The result: a sort of controlled chaos. This is still the hyperactive Yellow Submarine world in which Cheney’s subconscious seems to dwell, but with an element of balanced precision revealing a method to the cheerful madness.

“Art is something we all need,” Cheney says. “I want to go to that place, and be involved, and be moved.”

And so he and Seven invite others into their creative worlds, through the Emerge-N-See bus’ games, the music-provoked live painting and the up-close-and-personal art outpost at this year’s LAAFF.

The complete schedule

Greenlife Electric Stage

• Town Mountain (bluegrass), 11 a.m.
• Jon Scales Fourchestra (steel-drum fusion), noon.
• David Earl and the Plowshares (folk and gospel), 1 p.m.
• Kitchen Furniture Drum Ensemble (drumming), 1:50 p.m.
• Shannon Whitworth (country), 2:15 p.m.
• Firecracker Jazz Band (vintage jazz), 3:20 p.m.
• Crystal Kind (reggae), 4:30 p.m.
• Tall Bike Experience (tall-bike rider Mike Mooney attempts to set a world record), 5:30 p.m.
• Snake Oil Medicine Show (bluegrass-reggae eclectica), 6:15 p.m.
• Jar-E (soul), 7:45 p.m.
• Asheville Horns (live horn section), 8:55 p.m.
• Josh Phillips Folk Festival (upbeat folk-jam CD release), 9:15 p.m.

Mountain Xpress Performing Arts Stage
• Vertigo Jazz Project (experimental jazz), 11 a.m.
• Duende Mountain Duo (electronica), 11:30 a.m.
• Asheville Dance Revolution (children’s modern-dance project), 12:05 p.m.
• The Honeycutters (country), 12:30 p.m.
• Moving Women (dance collective), 1:15 p.m.
• Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (hip-hop music for kids), 1:25 p.m.
• Hip Hop Revolution (children’s hip-hop dance project), 2:05 p.m.
• Hunab Kru (break-dance troupe), 2:40 p.m.
• Ensemble Djembeso (master drummers from West Africa), 3:20
• Lisa Zahiya (belly dance), 4 p.m.
• Josh Blake (singer/songwriter), 4:45 p.m.
• The Sireens (lush harmonies), 5:20 p.m.
• Hellblinki Sextet (ironically named punk-folk trio), 6:05 p.m.
• South French Broads (experimental rock and performance art), 6:40 p.m.
• The Broomstars (pop rock), 7:20 p.m.
• The Runaway Circus and the Loose Caboose (sideshow high jinks), 8 p.m.
• Ruby Slippers with Mingle and DJ Atrophy (jazzy pop), 8:45 p.m.
• Unifire Theatre (fire dancers), 9:20 p.m.

Earth Fare BoBo Stage
• Arundas (world), 12:30 p.m.
• Brian McGee & the Hollow Speed (Americana), 1:30 p.m.
• Pierce Edens (Americana), 2:30 p.m.
• Angi West (singer/songwriter), 3:30 p.m.
• Ba Man Bia (world), 4:30 p.m.
• Secret B-Sides (neo-soul), 5:30 p.m.
• Sirius. B (absurdist fusion), 6:30 p.m.
• Cabo Verde (Latin), 7:30 p.m.
• Chakra Bird (experimental trio), 8:30 p.m.

The Freaky Tiki
• All-day DJ music (inside the courtyard near Mela Indian restaurant) with Sex Panther, Brett Rock, DJ Trevor, DJ jOshU and Gilbot.

Shady Grove Courtyard
• Old-time string music (hosted by Leigh Hilliard), 1-3 p.m.
• LAAFF Grass (the best of Asheville bluegrass pickers), 3-6 p.m.
• Circle for Song (hosted by Jenny Juice), 6-8 p.m.

LAAFF Aftermath
• The Nightcaps at BoBo Gallery, 10 p.m.
• Trouble at Emerald Lounge, 10 p.m.

Kids’ activities: LAAFF has always been kid-friendly—which is right in line with Asheville as a community. People move here to start families; it makes sense that the kids should be able to cut loose at the local festival. LAAFF has provided plenty of outlets for youthful creative expression, from slapping paint on automobiles to showing up in costume. And it’s fun for kids to see Mom and Dad sporting a cape or a set of wings, too. Apart from the interactive aspects of the festival (see above), children are also taking on a larger role as performers. This year, Laura “Lulu” Edmonds from fire-dancing group Unifire hosts the kids’ area. Joe Adams of break-dancing troupe Hunab Kru introduces his young students in Hip Hop Revolution, showing off their skills on the Mountain Xpress Performing Arts Stage. Asheville Dance Revolution, a modern-dance project for children led by Jodi Taylor, performs on the same stage.

For more on kids’ activities at LAAFF, see this week’s Edgy Mama.

What’s back by popular demand?

Lexington Avenue should have its own ZIP code. In a handful of blocks, the street defines, if not the essence of downtown Asheville, an important slice of the city’s unique character. Locally owned boutiques, cafes, and restaurants make the area a desirable destination, as do the street’s inhabitants. There’s an air of experimentation and self-expression you’d be hard-pressed to find in most towns, and LAAFF tips its hat to that spirit. You know those bumper stickers that say “Keep Asheville weird?” Lexington Avenue is doing its damnedest.

Photos By Jen G. Bowen

So, even though Scholze and LAAFF organizers practice catch and release with the festival’s acts and artists, they also welcome repeat endeavors. Along with art cars and tall bikes, there are certain elements that LAAFF fans have come to expect.

Angels and Zombies: Last year, the undead made a showing on Lexington Avenue. They’re back again this year, lurching through the festivities, led by performance artist Jim Julien. But the flesh-eating monsters aren’t alone: They’re joined by a host of angels (lead by Future of Tradition’s Onça O’Leary). More than entertainment, the zombies and angels serve an important function: They inform audiences about Arts2People, the nonprofit arts-promoting organization behind LAAFF and other ventures, such as the Asheville Mural Project and the Pritchard Park Cultural Arts Program.

Here’s something festivalgoers might not know: LAAFF is actually a fundraiser for Arts2People. And how exactly does a free festival raise cash? “Mainly through beer sales,” Scholze says. This year, French Broad Brewery is crafting a LAAFF beer that will debut at the festival.

The Shady Grove Courtyard: The DJs get their own courtyard, but other musicians shouldn’t feel left out. Once again, florist Shady Grove opens its charmingly eccentric garden space to acoustic instrumentalists. Leigh Hilliard hosts an old-time string jam, bluegrass pickers follow suit, and Jenny “Juice” Greer of Jen and the Juice leads a singer/songwriter circle to round out the evening.

The BoBo Gallery stage: Scholze notes, “A couple of local businesses are doing a lot to help us.” One of those is listening room and arts venue BoBo Gallery, which hosts a stage for singer/songwriters and world musicians, who play regular dates at the Lexington Avenue club.

Street coloring: Fun for the whole (fairy) family. Photo by Jonathan Welch

All local, all the time: Unlike many other area festivals, LAAFF doesn’t bring in outside help. Not when it comes to vendors, entertainment or organization. Instead, it’s a grassroots effort, combining locally procured resources and talents for an end result that’s completely Asheville-flavored. And that’s pretty tasty.


When it comes to booking bands, Scholze explains that there’s a certain level of competition, since space is limited and there’s a wealth of musicians competing for the 40- to 60-minutes long slots. Bands know that once they’ve played their show, they won’t be invited back for a few years (to allow everyone a fair chance for the spotlight), she notes. So they tend to either recommend their favorite acts, or else put together a side project with fellow musicians just for LAAFF. The result? Some familiar faces playing completely new sounds. This year’s mash-ups include Kitchen Furniture Drum Ensemble (a percussion group that will also perform as a marching band), Chakra Bird (with wordsmith Pam Howe, percussionist River Guerguerian and upright bassist Fatty) and Duende Mountain Duo (the electronic-dance experiment of Incognito Mosquito’s Will Stone and East Coast Dirt’s Will Little).

This year’s headlining act is Josh Phillips Folk Festival, playing a high-energy electric show that celebrates the release of the band’s new CD, Wicker. (Learn more about Josh Phillips Folk Festival in this week’s Sound Track.)

For more on local foods at LAAFF, see this week’s Small Bites; for Lexington Avenue businesses, see this week’s The Biz.

who: Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival
what: All-local street festival and fundraiser for Arts2People.
where: Lexington Avenue, between College Street and the I-240 overpass in downtown Asheville.
when: Sunday, Sept. 7. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Free. 252-8149

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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8 thoughts on “LAAFF-in

  1. Paul -V-

    This week’s cover will scare children.

    Well-written article ‘tho.

  2. Heheheh – thanks Paul. Feathermilk the Clown & I were both surprised to see his image grace the cover of the Mtn X this week. No doubt he will now be a minor celebrity at LAAFF this year (where as last year he really did scare children… unintentionally of course… I think).

  3. straightup

    Festival does not pay musicians. unless this is the first year. Musicians are playing for exposure and they (the festival) can’t keep a resonable schedule so musicians get that exposure. They have tried to cut corners with sound system and engineers who don’t know what they are doing. Musicians want to play but if their slot gets cut to 20 min. from an hour than it is hardly worth it. I hope things have changed.

  4. Connie Bostic

    Never mind clowns-let’s just celebrate the hard work and vision that it takes to do all this. Keep Asheville the place we love!

  5. xvelouria

    I agree completely about the clown, I have to admit I hesitated before picking up the issue. What a terrifying grin!!

    Anyhow, can’t wait till LAAFF tomorrow! :D

  6. share if warpcosm

    the music coordination was great!!!
    (this comment is from a band member, who played LAAFF 2008)

    The sound engineers were excellent!

    and for the person who commented so negatively above:

    Mr/Mrs. Straightup,
    The schedule was fine! As one of the final acts on stage, we were on time and had a full set….
    i dont know what your words are supposed to mean…. but, they seem, like, really mean.

    so, go away!
    …and have a great time when you do!
    peace and love, homey!

    love: george pond

  7. sherriff hwy ptrol cty cop an crook

    too bad that “straightup” didnt straight up leave an email addy!

    ~so, for posting a harsh hit and run, i declare that you will soon, straight up, have your feathers plucked….. and your free range status revoked!!! bok bok bok

    george pond

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