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All of Billtown’s a stage on the first Friday of each month when the streets and sidewalks of the downtown district transform into an impromptu theater for performers and an open-air gallery for artists showcasing a range of talents.
Premiering in May 2001, Williamsport’s First Friday initially took to the “stage” like an amateur actor, on wobbly legs, but has since evolved into a seasoned professional basking in the spotlight, most notably during warmer weather months. The dynamic tradition now attracts over fifty artists of varying ages, skills, and mediums eager to share their creativity.
One notable feature of the city’s First Friday is an obvious energy of encouragement and appreciation—from the organizers down to the spectators.
“First Friday is an amazing opportunity for artists of all kinds and all ages,” enthuses Beth Moser, creator of Beth Moser Designs, a collection of wearable hand-woven bead art. “Whether you’re a professional artist, an amateur, or in between, it’s an excellent way to showcase your work.”
Danielle Wesneski, age thirteen, is among the youngsters learning the business of art by participating in First Friday.
An artist whose creations have been featured in prominent beadwork magazines like Bead & Button as well as Beadwork’s 2012 Collectors Edition, Moser is attracted to the non-juried art show approach that First Friday offers.
“There’s an ease, a freedom about First Friday that you can feel when you’re here,” Moser remarks. “There are no limitations. Anybody can showcase their work. Often, artists are afraid to show their work, but First Friday offers an excellent stepping stone for people to show their work for the first time. It’s such a beautiful platform.”
Last month, across the street from Moser’s display was a table set up by thirteen-year-old Danielle Wesneski, selling homemade “bead creations” made with perler beads for twenty-five cents to eleven dollars.
Accompanied by her mother, Wesneski began coming to the event last year because she was establishing quite a collection of her creations and was in need of dispersing them.
“I started to get so many of them, I decided to sell them,” the youngster says, adding, “I like to sell things—I have since I was in kindergarten, selling candy bars for school.”
At the tables next to Wesneski, Beth Frear, a local author of a fantasy adventure trilogy titled Thin Greyy Linemarketed her books centering on an elf pirate, and Liz Peterson, a stay-at-home mother of three wee ones, enjoyed a little time away from home, making “extra money for bills” selling her quirky, repurposed art including wind chimes made from kitchen accessories and earrings fashioned from beer bottle caps.
City Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, one of the organizers of First Friday, says, “What First Friday has done is its opened up the possibilities of art to so many people—from the ones who are here selling and sharing their talents to the ones who are here to take it all in.
“There’s an eclectic range of art and a wide age range as well,” Katz continues. “You’ve got little Danielle, who has been participating for over a year—and she makes money! She sells her product. She’s learning how to run a business. The artists learn from each other; they watch how other people sell their art. What we’re doing, essentially, is not just promoting art, but promoting small businesses because every artist’s table out there is like a little incubator business.”
Beth Frear, a budding Williamsport author, sells the first two books in her fantasy trilogy. Next to her is her son, Jamin.
Katz owns Le Chocolat, a candy store, along with her husband, Bernie, president of the Williamsport Business Association. (The couple was featured on Mountain Home’s February 2013 cover story).Their business is the hub of First Friday where artists sign up to participate and offer a small donation fee if they can.
Last month, on the street in front of Le Chocolat, musicians from the Williamsport Area High School Band entertained a large crowd, while another throng gathered two blocks away, under the Community Arts Center marquee, listening to performers from the Adult Blues Workshop of the Uptown Music Collective, a local non-profit music school for all ages. Between the two performances, a twenty-something busker belted out folk tunes while strumming his guitar and collecting spare change in his open guitar case.
All of the activity is a sharp contrast to the early years of First Friday.
“I think the first year, we had one dance troupe and one small musical group and maybe three vendors. Still, we were all excited,” Katz recalls. “Sometimes it was like throwing a big party and nobody shows up, but we stayed with it because we could see the vision of it. It definitely took a while to develop. In the last five years, it’s really boomed.”
Now the event calls for the blocking off of streets for performances and the borrowing of chairs from the city of Williamsport for concert seating.
Because of the success of First Friday, organizers added a monthly First Saturday event last August.
“The difference between First Friday and First Saturday is that First Friday is strictly art. Only artists can show their wares,” Katz explains. “On First Saturday, organizations can sell non-art items. Not to say that we still don’t have artists, but it’s a different crowd.”
For many, First Saturday has become an “add on” to the Williamsport Growers Market, also held in the downtown district. Due to a waiting list to get into the market, some sellers now use First Saturday as an opportunity to vend their merchandise. First Saturday also attracts non-profit organizations selling items from popcorn to prize chances.
All of the activity helps to attract potential clientele into the city where the merchants don’t mind sharing their “stage” with others because of the mutual benefits of attention and profit—with the added boost of applause.
Cindy Davis Meixel resides near Williamsport and is a regular spectator of First Friday fun.