Totally Awesome Fest celebrates 15 years of free, spontaneous art in Ypsi

Most of Patrick Elkins' fondest memories of Totally Awesome Fest (TAF) were totally spontaneous moments – like the impromptu parade six years ago that ended in a concert on the roof of Deja Vu strip club.


"I learned over the years to leave space for unexpected things to happen, and those have turned out to be some of my favorites," says Elkins, TAF's founder.


That sense of unexpected inspiration has repeatedly drawn artists and audiences to the free annual festival, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary this Friday through Sunday at a variety of Ypsilanti venues. Naia Venturi, founder of Ypsilanti's Dreamland Theater, once spontaneously created a "slime fountain" during the course of a bake sale fundraiser for TAF, for instance.


"We started talking about putting slime in the window (at Dreamland Theater) but I thought we'd have to keep it moving or it would not be that interesting. I said, 'I should make a slime fountain,' so I did," she says. "I went to University of Michigan Property Disposition and got a peristaltic pump and made up a big batch of slime. I had to pump the slime up a long tube and drip back down, and it blobbed into a tank of slime."


Jim Cherewick, an Ypsi-based musician who has performed at every fest since 2003 either solo or with a band, says he loves the laid-back feeling of the festival.


"It's not a tight schedule. They run on punk-rock time," he says.


The crowds at the festival are supportive and accepting as well, Cherewick says, and his experiences with TAF were directly responsible for him meeting others in the local music scene, leading to a number of collaborations over the years.


"It's like a nice, warm hug welcoming you to Ypsilanti, and who doesn't want that?" he says.


Origins of Totally Awesome Fest


The festival got its start 15 years ago in Ann Arbor in the house where Elkins lived with friends at the time, which they'd dubbed the "Totally Awesome House."


He and his housemates put on free shows in people's houses as well as hosting a regular Tuesday night supper club with free music and a free meal. They were playing gigs so regularly that they decided to expand the supper club idea into a three-day festival.


Though each year has a different theme, several spontaneous happenings the first year have become annual TAF traditions, including playing basketball in a park and making pancakes for all attendees on Saturday morning. There's also a free clothing swap every year.


"That first year was really chaotic," Elkins remembers. "I had never organized anything on that scale. But as the years have gone on, we've become better organized because there are a lot more people involved."


The second year, Elkins moved to Ypsi and brought the festival with him. Over the last 13 years, the entirely free "family-friendly, all-ages, all-species" event has become a staple in Ypsi's music, arts, and culture scene.


The festival began in houses, backyards, and other unconventional venues, and that has continued throughout its history.


Venturi played the first TAF with a band she was in at the time. When the festival moved to Ypsi, she opened the theater to nighttime acts that were a little too loud for outdoor venues and inspired noise complaints from neighbors in the early years.


"Dreamland's mission is to foster stuff like this," she says. "We do puppetry, but we are also a venue to house more experimental types of events, so it's a good fit. ... The spirit of Dreamland and the idea of Totally Awesome Fest fit together really well."


Cherewick has played Dreamland and says it's a "great venue," but one of his favorite venues is the backyard of screenprinting business VGKids, at 884 Railroad St. in Ypsi. VGKids opens itself up as a venue for TAF every year.


"It's an interesting venue by the river, very secluded and off the beaten path, surrounded by the river, woods, and warehouses," Cherewick says. "That's one of the great things about Totally Awesome Fest, how it encourages you to explore different parts of Ypsilanti you wouldn't think to go to."


Collaborations grow


Collaboration has been a big theme for every year of the festival, and in that spirit, Elkins is teaming up this year with both the organizers of Shed X and Mega Melanin.
Mega Melanin, according to organizers, is a "a collective of artists and creators using their gifts and talents to unite communities… (and) showcase black beauty globally." The organization is contributing several music acts at venues ranging from
Ziggy's to Olympia Skate Shop.


Shed X was founded two years ago as a response to a TEDx event at the University of Michigan.


Founder Noor Us-Sabah says that at the TEDx UM event, there was "too much of a barrier between people doing their art or talking about what they care about on stage and the audience."


"We wanted to create more of a do-it-yourself skill share, performance share, and talk share in a space that felt more accessible like the Totally Awesome Fest vibe," Us-Sabah says.


They called their effort Shed X because early talks literally took place in sheds in Ann Arbor's Kerrytown and other unconventional spaces. Combining efforts with TAF this year felt like a natural move.


"A group of friends and I were really inspired by how only a small group of people can come together for non-hierarchically organized planning of an event and make things happen without spending any money and without an institutional framework," she says. "They just got together and made it happen, and made it happen for years."
This year, Shed X will host talks, demos, and performances throughout TAF on topics ranging from an "acro yoga jams workshop" to a talk on disability justice to a drag performance, she says.


Us-Sabah says she's been attending TAF for the past five years or so and appreciates that it's "a community of artists supporting each other."


"They're trying to be completely inclusive by making it free and making it accessible to as many people as possible in a diverse amount of locations," she says. "It's very inspiring that it's a totally free event where people take themselves seriously as musicians and artists but leave space for a goofy love of life and positive community."


A full lineup of acts and talks for Totally Awesome Fest EXTREME is available on the Facebook event page for TAF.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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