Joe Speck, not a chicken in sight, holds one of his fused glass pieces, decorated with Hungarian runes which spell his name as a form of signature. BOB LOBLAW

Pelham Art Festival returns with high enthusiasm, lower attendance than before pandemic

It was a beautiful afternoon on Saturday, May 7, featuring a spring sun that shined on cheerful birds on budding branches—i.e., the sort of day that’s a horror story for event planners. No one, they say, visits auto showrooms or indoor events when the weather’s nice. You need some good old-fashioned drizzle, maybe some light hail or locusts, to get the propects through the door.

At first glance outside the community centre this rule of thumb seemed to be out the window, given that approximately zero parking spaces were available, circa 3 PM. Apparently Elton John and Lady Gaga were strolling the art show aisles. Finally securing a narrow strip of graveled space in the overflow lot, a visitor entered the lobby to find the place overrun not with art aficionados but rather hockey players, their parents, cousins, friends, hangers-on, and hangers-on to the hangers-on. Past the melee, over on the Accipiter arena, ground zero for the art festival, the attendance was significantly lighter, quieter, and grayer.

Just inside the entrance was Don Svob, a wood turner from Wellandport, who for the last decade has used a lathe and his evident talent to fashion his pieces of art.

Don Svob, who fashions bowls, vases, trays, and other objects on his wood lathe. BOB LOBLAW

“I’m into the art more than the function,” Svob said, pointing out that even the flaws in the wood he uses—all local to Niagara and Pelham—can be harnessed in beauty’s service. Missing knots in a tray make for a convenient birch branch holder. Moss emerges from a crack in a vase.

There were 53 booths set up across the boarded-over ice. The scent of a vendor’s fresh baked goods hung in the cool air. Most visitors wore light jackets. Few under the age of 60 wore face masks.

At booth 15, Martha Southwell, from Fenwick, was enjoying her return to an in-person festival after the pandemic hiatus. Southwell’s been painting various subjects and scenes for 40 years, she said, including portraits. Her father, Bill Cader, a welder, posed for her at age 85, next to his beloved 1971 Plymouth Fury, which he owned for 31 years. Southwell’s family supports the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, and a handsome portrait of a PBY-5A Canso flying boat skimming just above the Pacific looked nearly photorealistic.

Martha Southwell, with the portrait she painted of her father and his prized 1971 Plymouth Fury. BOB LOBLAW

“A lot of pilots buy these,” Southwell said, “so it’s important to get the details right.”

Live string music discreetly emanated from a low stage next to a beverage seller. A few booths away, Fonthill’s Mary Powley, a festival veteran, said she’d been painting for 50 years.

“I sold my first work in Grade 8.” Powley mentioned seeing the former mayor earlier, whose council oversaw the community centre construction, and rhetorically asking him how the MCC got built without sufficient parking. “Well,” she said with a shrug, “It is what it is.”

Mary Powley with her painting of poppies. BOB LOBLAW

Down a bit at booth 20 was surely the youngest artist in the festival, George Wastle, of Burlington. At 25 he looked even younger, and had his mom—who emigrated to Canada from the former Soviet republic of Georgia three decades ago—along for assistance. Wastle said he spent several weeks last summer studying fine art in Italy, and had been drawing and painting since he was a teenager. Some of his works featured religious themes. A sorrowful Christ bowed in the wilderness. “That’s his crown,” Wastle said, pointing to what could also have been yellow flames licking from the ground.

George Wastle, of Burlington, with some of his Italian scenes. BOB LOBLAW

Suddenly there was the current mayor, Marvin Junkin, speaking to a pair of exhibitors in the centre of the arena. Taking a seat at one of a handful of round banquet tables, he drew his visitor’s attention to a booth across the way.

“That’s Joe Speck,” Junkin said. “He was a year ahead of me at Pelham District High.”

The Speck family ran a chicken farm, recalled the Mayor, and back in the day a lot of chicken farmers were ticked-off over Ontario’s quota system. Something about fryers vs. broilers. Feathers were figuratively flying. In 1975, Conservative Premier Bill Davis was running for re-election. On his way to a TV debate one afternoon in Toronto, Davis rolled down the window of his limo to wave at folks along the sidewalk.

Seeing his chance, a youthfully brash Joe Speck hustled over, leaned through the window, and deposited a live chicken on the leader’s lap.

“That’s right,” Speck said a few minutes later, confirming the Mayor’s account.

Speck was detained by police as the limo and presumably the future fryer (or broiler) rode on, and was informed he could be charged with assault.

“I told them, ‘How’s PREMIER ASSAULTED BY CHICKEN going to look in the newspapers?’” They let him go.

“DNA,” one of Speck’s fused glass creations. BOB LOBLAW

Years later, in fact, Speck ended up serving on the same industry board that had caused so much quota consternation.

“I even represented Ontario at the national level.”

Long out of the chicken game and now living in Jordan Station, for the last 16 years Speck has created glass artwork, first stained glass, then glass fusing. His booth was adorned with an array of pieces of dazzling ingenuity. A visitor lamented that his income was not up to the price tags, justified though they may be, but that his wife might have other ideas. “So I’m not telling her.”

Speck has some Hungarian ancestry and on a visit to Hungary awhile back he discovered Székely-Hungarian Rovás, or Hungarian runes, an alphabetic script for writing Hungarian used until the 11th century, when it was replaced with the Roman alphabet. There was a populist rune revival in the 20th century.

“On signs you often see both,” said Speck, who came home and began adding the runes to some of his glasswork.

Over its three decades-plus the show has raised nearly $460,000 to benefit the Pelham Library system, and funded community cultural programs and fine arts scholarships for Crossley and Notre Dame graduates. It is one of the longest-running art shows in Ontario.