Film photographer Bill Wierzalis considers his artwork a “niche focus.” He captures Italian sites and scenes using a 1972 film camera, and for about a decade he’s been selling his wares at the Bel Air Festival for the Arts. After a June trip to Italy, he’s thrilled to be returning to the festival this September to showcase new work.
“I am anxious to show people the new images I have from Venice … and from where my wife is from, around Bologna, Italy,” said Wierzalis, who has won awards for his photography at the Bel Air Arts Festival and, most recently, the Arts and Drafts Festival.
Baltimore-based Wierzalis, 74, is one of hundreds of exhibitors who keep people coming to the annual Bel Air Festival for the Arts, also known as the Bel Air Arts Festival, which will be held for the 55th time in 56 years on Sept 18.
“It’s funny, I would get phone calls in the summer asking me what day the show is. It’s always the third Sunday in September, but they wanted to make sure they didn’t plan their wedding on that weekend, because they knew that people wouldn’t be able to make it,” said former festival program director Donna Stufft, who stepped down a few years ago after retiring to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
John Resta, 64, took over as program director in April 2020 and has been working with the Bel Air Recreation Committee, the festival’s sponsoring organization, in various capacities for 30 years. He said he gets emails from loyal festival folks wondering if certain food vendors or artists will be present.
“It’s a big community event, where the community, throughout Harford County, as well as the surrounding tri-state area … actually come and they look forward to it,” said Resta, a Philadelphia native who has called Harford County home for 42 years.
The festival supports local sports programs, which is how Resta, former president of the board of directors, first got started with the Recreation Committee decades ago — coaching T-ball and baseball. Now, with upward of 300 exhibitors, food vendors, live entertainment and 15,000 to 20,000 visitors in a day, the festival has become the largest single-day fundraiser for Harford County Parks & Recreation.
“It is one of the largest one-day events that is free to the public and it really has a little bit of everything,” Stufft, 70, said.
The large nature of the festival is what originally worried Wierzalis, but now, the convenience of the one-day event and the crowd keeps him coming back as an exhibitor every year.
“It’s a fairly big show, that’s what concerned me a little bit. But there were a lot of artists, and I really enjoyed it,” Wierzalis said adding that he likes talking to the spectators, who come from all over.
Resta said last year’s festival was a big hit for many who were just reentering the festival circuit post pandemic. The 2021 event boasted exhibitors and visitors alike from Maryland, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina, and even an artisan from as far away as Washington state.
“This year I think the furthest away is Florida, and we have one exhibitor who is from upstate New York almost near the Canadian border,” he said.
However, there’s not only a diversity of license plates found at the festival. There are all sorts of arts — from digital and film photography, to handmade crafts, paintings, quilts, custom sneakers, water colors, face painting, henna and more.
“Any kind of art you’ve ever heard of is there,” Resta said. “There’s something for everybody’s taste, everybody’s budget and we advertise that it’s great for early Christmas shopping, because you can find one-of-a-kind gifts that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Stufft, who exhibits her handmade quilted paintings at the festival annually, launched her business Painted Stitches in the late 90s, with former festival co-coordinator and business partner, the late Jane Johnston. Even after the heartbreak of losing Johnston 15 years ago, as well as life’s ups and downs, Stufft has prioritized the beloved Bel Air Arts Festival.
“9-11 happened on a Tuesday, and the festival went on on Sunday, and I thought ‘Who’s going to come?’ Everybody came and it was just the community coming together and everyone hugging. And that was one of my great memories of the show — how we had that opportunity to get out of our homes and see everybody and feel alive,” Stufft recalled.
As a longtime returning exhibitor who has worked the festival circuit, Wierzalis said Bel Air Arts Festival participants are special.
“I enjoy seeing the people come to this show… appreciating the differences between film and digital. That keeps me coming back,” said Wierzalis.
Uplifting artists is a key goal for the festival, according to Resta, who said the organization’s social media will highlight the artists before, during and beyond the one-day event. He also emphasized the importance of supporting the artists’ work.
“I hope [visitors] purchase gifts for their family or pieces for themselves so these artists and craftspeople can continue to do their work, because for some people [if] they don’t sell stuff, they can’t buy new materials to make new art,” said the festival’s program director, who is an Army engineer by training, with no background in the arts.
“I talk to artists now and they are some of the most fascinating people,” added Resta, explaining how he has developed a much stronger understanding of the arts and their importance. “There’s hundreds of individual love stories out there, of why [artists] do what they do.”
The artists also appreciate the camaraderie. Artists are grouped in categorical sections, including: the fine artists, photographers (organized by film and digital), woodworkers, fabric artists and craftsmen.
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“They don’t get to see… how their work stands up against 200-plus, 300-plus of their fellow artists, craftsman, photographers. And you see a lot of collaboration back and forth, where the exhibitors are actually walking through the grounds, looking at other artists and talking to other artists saying, ‘How did you do this? How did you do that? Oh I’m going to try this. Oh that’s really great or show me that,’” Resta said.
And there’s even a competition.
“We judge fine art [painting], mixed media and photography,” Resta explained. “We have a group of judges comprised of artists, former art teachers, art professors … and they go around and jury the submissions and then we award cash prizes in those categories.”
More than 250 exhibitors have already registered for the 2022 event.Vendors will sell sausages, crab cakes, hamburgers, fresh lemonade, organic smoothies, craft-made Italian water ice and soft-serve ice cream and more. Entertainment will be provided by Relicoustic Steve Rexroth, Close Call, Dan Houtz, Upper Chesapeake Chorus of Sweet Adelines International and the Ain’t Misbehavin’ Band. The festival runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To add to the festival’s community vibe, the Bel Air Lions Club organizes student volunteers from Bel Air High School to help exhibitors with their stations — which are set up on festival grounds the Saturday before the event.
“They come in and help our exhibitors unpack their car, carry all their materials over to their booth locations, and help set it up. And then in the evening of the festival, you’ll see dozens of high school kids, helping. … The exhibitors absolutely, positively love it,” Resta said.
For more information on the Bel Air Arts Festival visit belairartsfestival.assn.