Smoketown Arts Festival

On July 11, 2015, IDEAS partnered with YouthBuild Louisville, Louisville Metro Housing Authority, Jones Motor Service and Kertis Creative to present the Smoketown Arts Festival. The festival was part of the Creative Innovation Zone supported by ArtPlace America, an IDEAS/YouthBuild initiative seeking to implement arts and culture related strategies to expand YBL’s capacity to serve low-income young people in Louisville’s urban core.

The event was held from 4-10pm in a new park on the corner of Lampton St. and Preston St., and celebrated the 150-year history of the neighborhood. It featured interactive booths by local organizations, a tribute to Smoketown artist Zephra May Miller, performances, and a documentary screening.

Several local organizations set up tables and tents for the first part of the festival. Many of these booths featured interactive arts activities for attendees of the festival. The vendors included:

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
New Roots/FreshStop
Louisville Metro Housing Authority
St. Peter Claver Community Garden
Bridge Kids International
Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft
YouthBuild Louisville
Jewish Family and Career Services
One Love Louisville
Smoketown Family Wellness Center
Down Home Tea
Dress for Success Louisville
Gray St. Farmers Market
Manhattan on Broadway
Alan Miller Art Car

Following an afternoon of exploring the booths at the festival, performances began at 7pm with presentations by two Hong Kong artists who are in Louisville as part of an IDEAS partnership with the Yale-China Association. Parry Ling, a sculptor, began by explaining the work he had been doing throughout the festival, the wood carving of a human figure. “That wood carving, we can work it together,” he said, inviting the audience to help carve and design tattoos on the arms of the sculpture.

The other Hong Kong artist, dancer Yang Hao, performed an original dance piece, utilizing the natural surroundings in the park as his stage.

One of the highlights of the festival was a special presentation in honor of the late Smoketown artist Zephra May Miller. Known as “The Bag Lady” for her clothing designs using trash bags, Zephra May Miller had a lasting cultural impact on Smoketown and the wider Louisville area. In honor of this amazing artist, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring July 11, 2015 as Zephra May Miller Day in the city of Louisville. Two of Miller’s children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the festival and accepted the proclamation. Jerry, her son, described his mother and her impact on her community. “She was just a very special woman,” he said,”she loved Smoketown, her heart and soul was in Smoketown. She allowed not only her time and talent to be used by Smoketown but she gave herself to Smoketown.” 

Another exciting part of the festival was the announcement of 25 new jobs for young adults in Smoketown. The creation of these jobs resulted a year after the launch of the Creative Innovation Zone (CIZ) in Smoketown. “We take a caring and responsible approach to ensure that all young people are prepared for adulthood,” said YouthBuild Louisville Executive Director Lynn Rippy, who founded the local chapter over 14 years ago. “Currently, for every dollar invested in a YouthBuild student, there is, at minimum, a $7.43 return on investment for the community. The purposeful inclusion of arts and culture across our organization has helped us think about things in new ways and to create new options for our young people. In one year, we have almost doubled our capacity.”

The new jobs will include urban farming apprenticeships and culinary apprenticeships, all of which will lead to permanent employment. IDEAS co-founder Theo Edmonds discussed the importance of the CIZ in developing new opportunities, saying “We are proving how artist-innovators can become catalysts for building a resilient, vital economy. In Smoketown that means supporting new forms of workforce development for young people that produce positive educational, business enterprise and cultural outcomes.”

The final performance of the night was a rendition of the West End Poetry Opera by Roots and Wings, which reflected on life, culture, and discrimination in the West End of Louisville through poetry, song, and dance. The festival concluded with a screening of Lavel White’s new documentary “More than Bricks and Mortar: Smoketown A New Beginning.” This detailed look at the history, culture, and future of Smoketown made an excellent finale to the festival.

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