~ The following first appeared in The Floyd Press newspaper on July 26, 20102.
“Floydfest Ambiance Director. That’s my official title,” said Barbra Gillespie, who has been working behind the scenes at Foydfest since the annual music festival began eleven years ago. For ten of those years, Gillespie has been responsible for much of the festival’s artful atmosphere. Her perennial flower beds and landscaped water ponds are places of peaceful inspiration that enhance the natural setting of the 80 acre Blue Ridge Parkway site.
“It was obviously important to Kris and Erika because they sought me out,” Gillespie said, referring to Floydfest founders Kris Hodges and Erika Johnson and their interest in creating an eco-friendly, entertaining music festival with an appreciation for aesthetics. She recalled helping the couple create ambience at Oddfellas Cantina when they opened the restaurant as its founders before Floydfest existed.
“But now I’m thanking them,” Gillespie said, expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to beautify a small part of the world. “We started with a blank slate. I went to a few festivals to see how they did it.”
From a brightly painted loveseat under the shade of festival Beer Garden trees, Gillespie pointed to one of the six water ponds she has created on site. Taking a break from work, she explained how she cemented the stone arrangements that surround the ponds. Some with toads, lily pads and flowers, the pond areas are popular with festival-goers and Gillespie has regularly put ajar rocks back in place during past festivals. Now that the festival has grown to capacity numbers, it was time to secure them in place, she said.
Inspired by a recent trip to Spain and the work of Anoni Gaudi, the late 19th century architect whose buildings in Barcelona frequently feature colorful mosaic tiled patterns, Gillespie’s has been adding decorative tiles to the cemented rocks.
Whether a lily pond, a giant wind sock tied to a tree top, a flower bed of spinning pinwheels or ten foot letters that spell the word LOVE, Floydfest is known for its artful touches, many of which change each year.
Kim Kessler is another Floydfest staffer who has her hand in creating festival ambiance. Originally brought in to fill the position of a hospitality hostess, Kessler’s role has grown over the years. Working with her three daughters, she’s been decorating green rooms and hospitality tents behind the main stage since 2004.
“We started with three green rooms, one large hospitality tent and a beer tent that served VIP ticket holders, staff and musicians,” Kessler said. Today she decorates as many as 13 green room tents, including a yurt for the media and a smoking lounge.
“Originally I brought my own truckloads of material in – couches, tapestries, tables, rugs, decorative items, and even a highchair for babies, which people really appreciated. Since then we’ve been allotted a budget.” Kessler scours stores, yard sales and thrift shops for fabric and furniture finds. Her tools of the trade are stored on site in truck size shipping containers, she said.
Floydfest green rooms, where musicians hang out before and after performances, are stocked with drinks and food and other requested items. Kessler and her daughters keep the tents clean and accent all of them with fresh flowers. “We have a local flower grower, Perky Deighan, who brings in vases and buckets full of flowers.”
Kessler says the idea behind the green rooms and hospitality tents are “to make spaces that are pleasing and comfortable so that the musicians can feel at home and relax in the time they are with us.” She is an avid music lover and has enjoyed meeting Floydfest performers over the years. “Last year I met Taj Mahal, an icon whose music I’ve been enjoying since I was thirteen years old,” she said.
This year Kessler is also excited about manifesting a vision she has had since she began her involvement with Floydfest. “I’m a licensed Virginia wedding officiate and will be performing a wedding on the Workshop Porch on Saturday, which is fitting for this year’s “Lovers Rock” festival theme.”
Other contributions to the artful ambiance at Floydfest are the metal sculptures – a bass and a fountain – made by Asa Pickford. “Streamline Timber has really added so much to the Floydfest ambiance,” Gillespie noted. “This year they are building lamp posts. Last year they built the giant X for Floydfest X, (the festival’s tenth year anniversary).”
Gillespie describes the few weeks leading up to the festival as “the most fun” for those who put it all together. She describes a feeling of camaraderie and also a low grade adrenaline, as the festival prep builds to its peak. “It’s quite an undertaking that such a rag-tag fledging group is now able to manage 15,000 people,” the approximate numbers attending sold-out days of the four day festival.
For Kessler, her work is more fast-paced. It begins the Monday before the start of the festival (July 26 – 29th) and ends with post-festival clean-up. “We wash about 100 pieces of fabric and a massive amount of dishes,” she said.
Floydfest headliners this year include Jackson Browne, Alison Kraus and Bruce Hornsby. Elizabeth LaPrelle of Floyd Radio Show notoriety, Blacksburg’s Dot Dot Dash and Wayne Henderson are among those on the list of regional performers.
Kessler is excited to see Michael Franti, an outspoken supporter of peace and social justice issues that blends hip hop with a variety of music styles, including funk, reggae, jazz, folk and rock. Gillespie says she’s looking forward to the Drive by Truckers, an alternative country/Southern rock band from Athens, Georgia. “I’m going to really stop and see some music,” she said. “I threaten to do that every year.” Colleen Redman