Down to a fine art

Mount Dora Arts Festival showcases nationally acclaimed artists.

Rows of white tent booths filled with fine art, oil paintings, jewelry, watercolors, acrylics, clay, sculptures, and photography will dot the downtown streets of Mount Dora when the city kicks off Florida’s festival season and attracts more than 250,000 visitors—many by busloads—to Lake County.

The 43rd annual Mount Dora Arts Festival is scheduled from 9am-5pm Feb. 3-4. Visitors can see and purchase works from 285 artists chosen from more than 800 applicants from around the country and Canada, according to Kristina Rosenburg, marketing director for the Mount Dora Center for the Arts, host of the festival.

The popular two-day juried show has been ranked No. 7 among the 200 best art festivals nationwide by Sunshine Artist Magazine.

“We are seeing some new artists who haven’t applied before, so we are thinking the reason why is because we are now rated No. 7 in the nation. A lot of people are now recognizing us,” Kristina says. “This is the highest we have ever been rated.”

She is thrilled the local festival received a higher placing than art shows in Fort Myers and Naples. “We beat some big ones,” she says.

The festival also awards more than $20,000 to artists winning best of show, judges’ choice, and the various “best of” prizes in different categories—another aspect that draws artists to Mount Dora.

“We are still one of the top ones to offer the most awards,” Kristina says, adding artists also cherish exhibiting in Florida at a time when it’s colder in the northern states.

“Some of the artists say they love the hospitality,” she says. “They love the setting and backdrop of Mount Dora; the festival is kind of their little escape or vacation away.”

Mount Dora native Gary Hopcraft, a board member of the arts center, remembers the first festival in 1975 was a small street gathering of art lovers.

“I remember the merchants donating to help get the festival going each year. We were doing this because it was all about the art,” he says, recalling one year the festival didn’t happen because organizers forgot to notify the Department of Transportation about needing to close Donnelly Street.

“What I really love about the art festival is seeing people I have worked with through the years,” Gary says. “It’s a chance to see old friends.”

Artist John Wayne Jackson, from Black Mountains, North Carolina, made a new friend at last year’s festival after Seamus McGovern, 7, surprised him with a handmade ribbon—the Kids’ Choice award—for having artwork that was the young boy’s favorite.

John was deeply moved.

“I have a wall full of awards. Best of show, best of sculptures, just a wall full, and in 18 years, you accumulate those,” John says. “I never had an award that touched me and moved me like when Seamus McGovern walked up to me and said, ‘I have something for you. I decided you’re the best of show,’ and he gave me this handmade ribbon. It was just the most amazing thing. It made my show.”

The child returned with his parents later in the day and made his first art purchase with his own money of a little rainbow piece the artist had for sale at his booth.

John says the handmade ribbon remains his favorite award.

“I am going to move all of my ribbons around and put his right in the center where it belongs,” John says. He will return to the Mount Dora festival in February for the seventh time.

Kristina says the Kids’ Choice was a new award last year and it will be offered at the 2018 festival, too. In a special Kids’ Art Zone area of the festival, children will be able to decorate blank ribbons with markers, crayons, stickers, and sparkles. The goal is for children to appreciate art and give the ribbons to the artist of their choice.

“Some of the artists wore their ribbons from the kids, while others put them in their booths so people could see they got a kids’ award. It was one of the cutest things we have done in a while,” Kristina says.

The festival also will feature local and regional entertainment in Donnelly Park, food, and merchants welcoming visitors to town.

Kristina takes delight in hearing of people who fall in love with Mount Dora while strolling the streets.

“Some people like the art festival so much that they see great artwork and all this little town has to offer that they want to live here,” she says, adding it’s perfectly understandable. “With a nickname of Festival City, it draws people to Mount Dora.”