Leslie Bell says he remembers the specific second when what is now the Riverssance Festival of Fine Arts was conceived.
It was on a New Year’s Eve and a longtime arts backer had asked him what he thought the area needed.
“One really cool thing the Quad-Cities needs is another arts fair,” he remembers responding. “The Beaux Arts Fair was a very different breed of animal. ... Philosophically, it was quite different. I wanted something more broad-ranging, more competitive, more fine art-y and more artist-ccentric, where artists would get as much help as a group of people could muster on their behalf.”
And that’s become the case for Riverssance, which celebrates its 25th edition this weekend in Lindsay Park in the Village of East Davenport.
Bell and fellow artists John Bald, Connie Bieber and Larry DeVilbiss spent a year-and-a-half, usually meeting at Mac’s Tavern in downtown Davenport over beers, planning for what eventually became the festival.
“I would say when we first started it was kind of a lark,” said DeVilbiss, who has been the show’s chairman for many years.
“We wanted to try something on our own and it just kind of took off. Each year it got a little bit bigger and a little more complicated,” he added and then laughed. “It’s one of those things where I wonder if I would have stuck around if it was 25 years later.”
After several moves on the calendar (August was too hot and too busy, October weather was too unpredictable) and locations (the first few years were at LeClaire Park in Davenport, but it moved to the East Village where there are shade trees and places to spike tents), it’s been a September staple of the Quad-City schedule and is now an anchor event of the East West Riverfest, the first of which concludes its 10-day run this weekend.
The festival has grown in scope through the years, adding wine tasting and local music, booked recently by River Music Experience.
“They’ve added really cool things over the years and an emphasis on local and regional culture in addition to artists coming from all over the place. It’s really a nice blend,” said Bell, who stepped away from organizing the event after the fourth or fifth year but continues to be a supporter. “Adding the local wine concession is cool. The kids tent, definitely the music stage has been fantastic when you think of Greg and Pieta Brown, Bo Ramsey, on and on and on. Really top talent on that stage.
“There’s absolutely no reason to be bored there. If you’re not visual, what the heck, there’s plenty of other stuff to do,” he added.
DeVilbiss said the event stands out because it’s organized, and still run, by working artists.
“We make the event very attractive for artists because we know what the artists really need to have a comfortable weekend,” he said. “That right there gets us artists coming back year after year.”
The show was also among the first in the Quad-City region to allow artists to sell prints of their work.
“That was our bread-and-butter money,” said DeVilbiss, who also teaches art at Davenport West High School. “If we sold an original, that was icing on the cake. But the way you made your money back for the entry fee and the traveling expenses was by selling prints of your work.”
Besides being a founding father of Riverssance, Bell is the recipient of this year’s Harley Award, named for the festival’s harlequin logo and celebrating those who make significant contributions to the arts in the area. The honor has been presented since 1988.
Bell, an art faculty member at St. Ambrose University in Davenport since 1974, went into semi-retirement this year and became an adjunct instructor. He was informed of the award while part of a panel discussion at the Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport.
“I just really flipped,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted that award. It means quite a bit to me because I think Riverssance is a really beautiful thing, and I worked my ass off with other hard-working members of the crew to get it on the map.”
The first Harley award was given to John Bloom, and the second went to the Rev. Edward Catich, a St. Ambrose artist who became a world-renowned calligrapher and graphic designer. A Washington, D.C., native, Bell became a St. Ambrose student in 1965 and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art before teaching there for 38 years.
Bell is still at work as an artist. An exhibit of some of his 100-plus colored-pencil drawings will be on display at Rozz-Tox in Rock Island during November. And a career retrospective of his work is scheduled to be shown at the Icon Gallery in Fairfield, Iowa, during May and June.