In this series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is also available online.
In this post, Library Assistant Marissa Friedman explores the history of the Fall Arts Festival, which is celebrating its 63rd year this month, through the eyes of artists in the oral history collection who have contributed to its success.
The Fall Arts Festival, original called the Mill Valley Harvest Festival, premiered in 1957 and ran for nine days (over the years the event has been trimmed to two days). Held in Lytton Square, this communal celebration included a fashion show, costume parade, sidewalk foliage displays, and of course, local artists displaying their works in store windows. The Mill Valley Record described the event as “an expression of a community working together, for a fun-having, cultural purpose…it is an expression of the people of our town” (24 October 1957, Mill Valley Record, Volume 58, p. 2). The 1958 festival expanded its entertainment options from the year prior, incorporating auto shows, Halloween parades, puppet shows, folk dancers representing various countries around the globe, sidewalk games, children’s shows, hulu hoop contests, and more. A carnival atmosphere held sway in these early years.
The festival was quickly integrated into the unique cultural and civic fabric of Mill Valley. In 1959, the festival renewed its commitment to and focus on artistic achievement by ridding itself of the auto and fashion shows and increasing the presentations of art and music in the three-day itinerary. These early years cemented the festival’s importance to both the local community and to the larger regional artistic community. A 1958 editorial in the Mill Valley Record declared that, “Basically, it seems to us, we have in the Fall Festival an appropriate agent for expressing a community's culture” (6 November 1958, Mill Valley Record, Volume 59, p. 2). A year later, the Mill Valley Record proclaimed that “All things considered —our wilderness environment, our colorful traditions and our gifted people—the Mill Valley Festival has a right to develop into a community arts demonstration of rising importance on the Pacific Coast” (24 September 1959, Mill Valley Record, Volume 60, p. 2).
In 1961 the Festival experienced a moment of crisis, as the Mill Valley Junior Chamber of Commerce declined to sponsor the Festival as they had traditionally done in the past. Yet the community banded together to find sponsors and supporters to keep the festival afloat. The Outdoor Art Club and the Marin Society of Artists partnered with the Jaycees and the American Association of University Women to run a successful festival. According to Steve Bajor, long-time executive director of the festival, “artists and their art were truly established as the main focus—not dart throwing and hot dog stands—during this renaissance year. The festival’s goal of ‘cultural rather than carnival’ redefined the event as a town-wide gallery for professional and amateur artists and craftsmen” (Bajor, 2016). The festival moved to Old Mill Park in 1962 following its incorporation as a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the arts in Mill Valley and was renamed the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival. It has remained at this site ever since, retaining the same format and structure solidified back in 1962: that of “individual artists showing multiple pieces of their work in a collective show” (Bajor, 2016), with musical acts to augment the art on display.
Famed Mill Valley artist Tom Killion, known for his gorgeous Japanese style woodcuts, recalls in his oral history the impact of the art festival on his own artistic aspirations: “right down the hill from me, in Old Mill Park, right across the street from the K-6 school, Old Mill School, that I’d gone to, was this art fair. As a kid, I think I remember it first being in Lytton Square, where they would put pictures in the windows of the shops and my mother taking me around to look at those. But I remember going down to that art fair, they had built these sort of pegboard walls. In those days, they had just driven two-by-fours or stakes into the ground all over and put up these sort of long running walls of pegboard and then people hung up their paintings on them, with lots of paintings. It wasn’t such a crafty thing, it was more fine art, more painting than anything else…I was really impressed by that art fair and I wanted to be an artist and do that.” (Oral History of Tom Killion, 2016, p. 16).
Killion first exhibited his work at the festival when he was 16 years old. Since the ‘60s, he has been a prominent supporter of the festival and has often served on the festival’s board and committee. In his oral history, Killion describes this psychedelic culture of the Festival in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as the counterculture of the era swept through the San Francisco Bay Area, settling comfortably into the vibrant arts and music scene in Mill Valley. According to him,
“The art fair was to see and be seen; I mean to see people and be seen. And it was just like the cultural event. Everybody came there to do it. And they would stop — and these icons of rock ‘n’ roll, I wouldn’t know who they were, but I could tell they were, and their girlfriends, would come and stop and look at things, and talk to you….Mill Valley, it was like anywhere else. All that stuff’s just normal, but there was this element to it because the people that were walking around that art fair, were like inventing this new world of psychedelic rock culture. They really were inventing it, right there. And you could see it just taking form and it had this there was something going on there. It wasn’t just the girls with the buckskin, fringe dresses that I remember. It was something about that whole atmosphere. It was just full of energy. Probably a lot of psychedelic drugs too…So that’s my real magical memory of the Mill Valley Art Fair, in the redwood trees with the kind of the dust in the air that you could see the golden beams of sunlight coming through the trees and all these people dressed in these really fun costumes” (Oral History of Tom Killion, p. 21-23)
There were signs, however, that the spectacle had grown into something slightly unmanageable, provoking consternation among some community members. By 1972, concerns about the nature and size of the event propelled the festival committee to propose a series of measures to implement better crowd management techniques, offer improved facilities, and introduce other alterations which would increase the perceived quality of the experience and exhibitions. The familiar tension between art and entertainment, seriousness and spectacle, continued to rear its head.
The importance of the festival for cultivating a vibrant local artistic culture in Mill Valley cannot be understated. In the case of Killion, it provided a space in which to learn the ropes of art marketing and launch a successful entrepreneurial career, as he discusses in some detail in his oral history. For him and others, it also helped to inspire a lifetime of artistic aspirations and achievements. Local set designer and artist Steve Coleman also recalled the “magical” experience of the festival in the ‘60s, when he was just a child. Like Killion, Coleman grew up attending the festival and in turn exhibited his own artwork many times as a full-fledged artist. Coleman, who exhibited a retrospective of his work at the 61st Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival in which he was especially honored, commented on the relationship between his own work in miniatures and the inspiration he drew from the festival. In his oral history, he remarked that “when I went down to look at the grove there in the Art Festival, I would go there every few days before when I was getting the show ready, and try to draw those stumps because it’s like there were whole worlds in those ancient redwoods that had been cut 150 years ago. They had sculpted themselves into something unbelievable — these things that look like Monument Valley — little, tiny worlds” (Oral History of Steve Coleman, 2018, p. 19).
At the city’s 2018 Milley Awards, the Fall Arts Festival was awarded the Vera Schultz Award in recognition of its significant contributions to the cultural life of Mill Valley. This special event continues to serve as a major vehicle for the promotion of exceptional art and artists from Mill Valley and beyond, as it continues to expand its geographic scope by offering more exhibitor spots to international artists. This year’s Fall Arts Festival will feature 135 local and international artists, and will take place September 14 and 15 in Old Mill Park. For more information about Tom Killion, Steve Coleman, and other local artists featured in the Oral History Program at the Mill Valley Public Library, please visit our website or take a trip to the History Room. The History Room also holds photographs of the festival and maintains several folders of pamphlets and other material relating to the evolution of the Fall Arts Festival, all of which is open and available for browsing.
Oral History of Steve Coleman, by Debra Schwartz. (2018). Mill Valley Public Library.
Oral History of Tom Killion, by Debra Schwartz. (2016). Mill Valley Public Library.
Mill Valley Record. (24 October 1957). Volume 58, p. 2
Mill Valley Record. (6 November 1958). Volume 59, p. 2
Mill Valley Record. (24 September 1959). Volume 60, p. 2
Bajor, Steve. (Spring 2016). “The Evolution of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival.” Mill Valley Historical Review, p. 12-13.