Pulling into the parking lot at Westgate Park, myriad canopy tents occupied one end of the 46-acre expanse in the Westgate community. Stepping out of my car, music interspersed with laughter filled the air of the Hilltop, echoing through the trees providing shade on this beautiful, cloudless Saturday.
Making my way through the trees, the thumping blues of MoJo Theory reverberated throughout the east end of the park. There were numerous people in chairs or sprawled on the grass in front of the stage to soak-in the music. Beyond that, the sea of tents provided respite from the bright sun for the artisans that had their wares on display.
Along one side, a wonderful smell wafted from the line of food trucks, including Pitabilities, Timmy’s Meltdown, Angkor Asian Express, The Tasty Good and Cazuela’s Grill, feeding the residents and visitors in attendance to celebrate their community with the fourth-annual Summer Jam West. This year’s theme was Summer Jam West 2017: Movin’ & Groovin’.
The sense of community was palpable everywhere you looked, as people of many diverse backgrounds co-mingled among the tents, perusing the many items the artisans had to offer. The organization’s concession stand keeps their water, soda and sno-cones priced at just $1, wanting everyone to be able to enjoy a cold beverage.
“The first year, we had about a thousand people” said Patti Von Niessen, executive director of the event. “The second year, it literally doubled to 2,000 people. Last year, our attendance doubled again to over 4,000. It’s really picked up.”
The preliminary estimates place the crowd-size at over 6,000 for 2017.
“Part of that is because we are the only festival on the Hilltop and we’re the only organization that promotes art on the Hilltop. We’re the only organization that brings in local bands, calls in local artists, and leaves large pieces of public art behind. I think that makes us stand out.”
That sense of pride in the community, and the desire to draw the Hilltop community closer together though art and music, is a driving force within the Canadian-native.
She moved to the neighborhood in 2009 and launched the nonprofit organization in 2014. She did this with the hope of bridging both the physical and cultural divide that separates the Hilltop from downtown Columbus.
It all started when she went to the Goodale Park music series a few years previously with her husband, Bob. As they were riding their bicycles back home, she exclaimed to her husband, “Why can’t we have this on the Hilltop?” Thus, the seed planted for what would become Summer Jam West.
“On the Hilltop,” she continued, “we have this amazing graphic artist (Alan Jazak), and he has his own studio, Formation Studio. So, I approached him and he did all our artwork the very first year. It’s good people buying in to the whole Hilltop community.
“We’ve been blessed. We’ve had the same major sponsors every year. And, every year they dig deeper into their pockets to support us.”
In addition to the art, music and food trucks, there was a tent setup for children’s face-painting, along with a local ice cream shop to help beat the heat. Columbus police had both K-9 and horse-mounted units in attendance, delighting the children immensely.
“The very first year,” she said, “our awareness was on artists living with disabilities. This year, the theme is social justice.”
The organization’s staff has grown exponentially along with the event. From a cadre of eight board members the first year, they now have ten board members and a volunteer staff of 44 people to help ensure the event runs smoothly.
One aspect of the event that gets left in-place each year is the creation of a mural for the community to enjoy on a permanent basis. For this year’s mural, they had 19 artists apply for the honor of creating the community mural. Word has spread about the event, with artists from Vancouver Island (Canada) and the U.S. Virgin Islands vying with local artists for the coveted slot.
“The key with Summer Jam,” she said, “is that I want to keep it local. I want our artists to remain local, our major art installations to be done by local artists, our bands to remain local, and our craft artisans to remain local. We’re here to support the local economy.”
This year’s mural was painted by post-modern artist turned deconstructionist, and Columbus resident, Roger J. Williams. In the past, he’s worked for the studios of Andy Warhol, Sol Lewitt and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
This year’s mural was painted on the side of a building along the newly-painted Camp Chase Trail, just east of N. Sylvan Ave. The “canvas” for the mural measures an awe-inspiring 95 feet by 13 feet.
“Roger said, ‘I want to leave a legacy,’ and he gifted (the mural) to us. It’s just amazing. As Puffin West said, he gets paid in karma.”
They also had to scramble to book bands the first year. This year, they had 29 bands apply for the five available music slots. The Salty Caramels, MoJo Theory, The Devil Doves, The Ark Band and Southern Ground were the five bands that played this year’s event, representing a diverse selection of music styles and genres.
With much of Westgate Park still unused by event, they have plenty of room to grow. How big will Summer Jam West get? Von Niessen admits that she doesn’t have the answer to that question, but hopes that the growth continues.
“We have made a commitment to bring a positive economic impact to the Hilltop,” she explained. “If you can’t make a difference in the world you live in, what are you doing?”
We couldn’t agree with you any more than we already do, Patti.
Correction: Cazuela’s Grill replaced Don Deme’s Tacos. Summer Jam West began in 2014.