You don’t have to have lived for a long time in the Triangle area of North Carolina before you see a “critter,” maybe at your favorite restaurant, at the North Carolina Museum of Art, or even in a neighbor’s front yard, and begin to hear parts of the story of Clyde Jones. Clyde, a former mill worker, lives in Bynum, just south of Chapel Hill and north of Pittsboro, near the path of the Haw River through Chatham County. He has been making his critters, as well as paintings of penguins, butterflies, elephants, and pandacows (his version of the Belted Galloways in residence at Fearrington Village), since 1982 and welcoming any and all fans to see his creations at his home, the exuberantly-painted Critter Crossing on Bynum Hill Road. Before you even get to the Critter Crossing, you will see critters of all shapes and sizes in the yard of almost every resident of Bynum. If you stop at the Bynum General Store, you will see a large painting of penguins on the wall. But you cannot miss the Critter Crossing when you finally get to it–the tin roof is painted with sea creatures, penguins march across the walls, and the yard is filled with critters of all shapes and sizes. Clyde is often on his front porch with a chainsaw, carving and assembling a new creation. He embellishes the critters with paint, glitter, fake flowers, spots, dots, bottle-cap or baseball eyes, and anything else to hand that will bring out the personality of each wooden animal in his menagerie. And Clyde isn’t just locally famous–his critters are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and have visited the Great Wall of China. (1)
Clyde prefers to give away his critters and other works. He has participated frequently in the Haw River Festival, organized by the Haw River Assembly to restore and protect the river that runs near his home. He loves to visit schools and has said “Parents need to leave kids be to make whatever they want to make, however they want to make it. They know what they’re doing.” (2) In 2002, the Chatham Arts Council honored him as the first “Chatham County Cultural Treasure” and held the first Clydefest in his honor. (3)
This year, I went to Clydefest for the first time. Now in its 14th year, and held on May 2, 2015 at the Bynum Ballpark less than a block away from the Critter Crossing, Clydefest has become a unique celebration of the things Clyde loves most: children, creativity, and critters both living and made. The Small Museum participated with a tent providing a hands-on art activity for children 10 years of age and under and these are some of the things we saw and experienced:
1. This spring has been a very wet one in central North Carolina, and pretty much the whole week preceding the festival had included everything from spritzes to downpours on a daily basis. We showed up early on an already sunny day and many volunteers were out with lots of bales of hay to lay down over muddy patches in the infield, and food trucks trying not to get stuck in the ruts on their way to the outfield. Thankfully, the day stayed sunny and warm and was (or so we heard from a CAC volunteer) the highest-attended Clydefest ever.
2. Fellow folk artists and friends of Clyde, Mark May (who designed the 2015 Clydefest T-shirt) and Peter Loose (and his African tortoises) set up camp in centerfield to add to the creative energy of the day. Peter and Mark both stopped by our tents bearing gifts for the museum. Peter’s “dot”-“critter” pins were in high demand (I got one of the last giraffes!), and Mark’s Monkeybot was nonplussed at all of the kid-handling he received. The tortoises really liked the centerfield grass.
3. Parents could barely keep up with their kids, who ran from colorful ball-tossing games, to painting their own critter cutouts, to making bookmarks with the Chatham County Library, to eating ice cream and pizza, to getting their faces painted, to running around the bases of the park infield, and to assembling and decorating cardboard and pipe cleaner robots at our tent. Entire families took home armloads of handmade art and then presumably slept very well that night.
4. Someone (Clyde perhaps?) really likes Johnny Cash. Whenever there was a break between musical acts or Bouncing Bulldog performances on the stage platform in left field, Johnny’s greatest hits would play over the loudspeaker system. We couldn’t help but sing along.
5. Clyde was, throughout the day, on the go on his tractor lawnmower, surveying the tents and trucks during setup, going back and forth to his house for critter-making materials, and sometimes just cruising by to give his thumbs up to kids busily making away at an activity tent. Everything else stopped in the last hour of the festival while Clyde and an assistant made a critter, taking suggestions and possible critter guesses (Alligator? Crocodile? Dog?) from the dozens of kids ranged around the stage, and then inviting every child present to come sit on the finished critter to prove its sturdiness while former Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller auctioned it off to their parents to raise funds for the CAC. Children often placed their own, unauthorized, bids on the critter (maybe an Alligator?).
6. Clydefest has the hardest working volunteers I have ever seen.
We definitely look forward to seeing everyone at Clydefest again next year!
(2) “Clyde Jones,” www.avam.org/our-visionaries/clyde-jones.shtml, last accessed 5/13/2015.
(3) Regina Bridgman, “Celebration to Honor Chatham Artist,” www.carrboro.com/clyde/clydefest.html, last accessed 5/13/2015. Regina was the executive director of the CAC at the time of the first Clydefest.