Instead of sitting by and watching large-scale developments overtake the hillsides, long-time visitor Frank Langley decided to take action to protect what he saw as the “true nature” of St. John.
Langley, who first visited Love City around 1970, thought the best way to retain the island charm was to stage a week-long festival showcasing arts and crafts.
“I started the festival chiefly as a counter balance or counter weight to the extensive development of what used to be the simple village of Cruz Bay with bars and restaurants and shops,” said Langley. “While there was the prosperity that goes with development, nevertheless, it was beginning to mask the true nature of St. John as I knew it 30-odd years ago.”
“It was a simple place to come to soothe your soul from the rigors of the north and that was disappearing fast,” the St. John Arts Festival founder continued.
Langley, who has an arts background and had previously started an arts fest in New Zealand, set to work and in 2001 the St. John Arts Festival was born.
“I always thought the best way to recover the true nature of the island, which is namely the people, was to have a week-long festival that brings out the simple things like quadrille dancing, church choirs, music of the island, food and crafts,” said Langley.
After wrapping up the seventh annual festival on March 2, the true meaning of the events’ origins were still alive.
Musicians, from Koko and the Sunshine Band to Inner Visions, played in the Frank Powell Park daily while local artists and vendors sold their wares.
Island Food and Films
The V.I. National Park put on the 16th Annual Folklife Festival showcasing traditional food, music and dance at the Annaberg Plantation ruins. Films depicting the establishment of the VINP and a true island character “Jamesie King of Scratch” were screened and school children’s art was on display at the Cruz Bay Battery.
“You can’t change what has happened, but what you can do is not let the true St. John be buried,” said Langley. “You’ve got to assert what is the true St. John and a very effective way to do that is to bring out the arts and crafts of the island.”
While different facets have come and gone, the main blueprint for the festival has remained the same over the years, according to its founder.
“The main idea back at the first festival was to have the skeleton of bands in the park every day to create a festive atmosphere,” said Langley. “Since the arts fest was going to run all week, the bands in the park would provide the continuity.”
The people involved in the festival have come to define what the St. John Arts Festival is all about, explained Langley.
“From the first festival, it has become what the people want rather than any preconceived notion about what it should be,” Langley said. “The people who put it on are all volunteers and now it’s sort of done in a grapevine kind of way.”
While the festival has morphed over the past seven years, it has grown into what it should be, explained the event’s founder.
Garden Is Growing
“The structure has been accepted,” said Langley. “The focal point is the park with the bands playing and the church choirs on Sunday and the quadrille dancers. The festival is now appreciated without me imposing it on people.”
“I had to plant a few seeds and water it, but the garden has really been adopted by the people,” Langley continued.
Looking ahead to the future, Langley sees the festival’s course being directed by the people involved, the arts festival founder explained.
“Again with great deference to the people of St. John, the festival has to grow such as it belongs to St. John and it’s not like one of those giant condos there,” said Langley. “More artists would be nice, but it needs to be done in moderation because the festival is really a celebration of the arts and crafts of the people of St. John.”
“The island is still a small place so whatever we do has to effectively compliment the island and not deface it — there is enough of that here,” Langley added. “The festival has to run hand-in-hand with the essence of the island — the island that we knew of old.”
The seventh annual St. John Arts Festival included art exhibits and historical skits by school children, which is sure to continue in the future, explained Langley.
“One of the points of the festival is to showcase or bring out the essence of the island and the school children are such a huge a part of that,” the arts festival founder said.
For anyone who missed the seventh annual St. John Arts Festival, which ran from February 24 through March 2, don’t miss next year’s — which should be presented around the same time of year and is sure to be even better.