Rock the Casbah

From May through October, the First Sunday Arts Festival transforms inner West Street into an Annapolitan Casbah.

Wandering down West Street, you find the normally high-traffic thoroughfare empty of cars, replaced by dozens of artisans’ tents. Despite the weather — rain to swelter to who knows what — swarms of people stroll the brick road, admiring the treasures on display. From earrings made of bottlenecks to children’s storybooks to paintings to decorative shutters, the selection covers art of many shapes and sizes.

What started 10 years ago as a few vendors arranged haphazardly along the sidewalks of West Street has become one of the city’s most established and successful festivals, drawing over 90 craftsmen and women, some local and others traveling from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware to sell their creations. Most create their own goods, as trade festival organizers have encouraged.

“We focus on artists who make their own or most of their own items,” says Pamela Godfrey Stevens, one of three organizers. Stevens works as an arts administrator at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, manages area festivals in the area and plays as a freelance flutist. She’s had a hand in First Sundays since its origin as a monthly art opening at 49 West and Artifacts.

“Artists were clamoring to get in. It was booked for three years,” says Stevens. “49 West owner Brian Cahalan and Artifacts owner Eric Evans thought why not have it outside so more artists can be a part of the Annapolis art scene?”

In the beginning, half a dozen vendors lined up along the sidewalk as traffic sped by as usual. Once the city gave permission to close off the street, however, more and more vendors signed up. The festival now runs on the first Sunday of every month May thru October.

“This festival is unique because it is not just the three of us who have created it,” says Stevens. “Vendors have had just as much influence as we have. They see festivals that work and those that don’t. We took every bit of feedback that came to us and tried our best to use it.”

The festival has grown to include not only the first block of West Street, but also City Gate Park on the corner of West and Calvert streets and Whitmore Park farther down Calvert. Stevens hopes it will spread farther still, drawing in West Street businesses all the way to Park Place.

A good day brings a crowd of about 3,000. Entertaining them on three stages is a lineup of local entertainers: acoustic music, magic shows and swing dance music and lessons. October 3’s final First Sunday features performances by Viva Flamenco, Annapolis Dixieland Band, Basement Band, The Brothers and Sisters, and Craig Sparks Swingtet.

Next to one of the stages is The Annapolis Collection, an art gallery owned and operated by Katherine Burke. She has run the gallery for three years and supports the festival by welcoming artists to set up their easels on the sidewalk in front of the gallery, a prime location for foot traffic.

“It helps young artists who are trying to get their work out there,” Burke says. “I want to make it accessible for young artists to be seen, to get as much exposure as they can. I’d like to see more easels in the festival.”

Artists young and old are given the opportunity to interact with locals, living up to the event’s slogan “1st Sunday Arts Festival – Where Community and Arts Fuse.”

“We’re looking for it to be a place where people know each other and the artists in their community,” Stevens says. “A place where you can come for free, see your neighbors, meet the artists, street-side dine, people watch, bring your dog, bring your kids — tie community and arts together.”