The 35th annual Festival of the Masters drew huge crowds to Downtown Disney last weekend (Nov. 11-13), filling the Mouse’s open-air mall with artworks from folk to fine, decorative to digital. Artists from around the country and region appeared alongside locals like Anna McCambridge (who chalked a Twin Peaks-inspired owl on the sidewalk) and Dawn Schreiner (who displayed her celebrity saints outside the House of Blues). The only unifying element was that all the artists are alive and creating. While Disney’s Downtown celebrated contemporary pop art, there were two exhibit openings that I attended closer to downtown Orlando that gave a glimpse of its past as well as a peek into its possible future.
Absurd as it might sound to the iPod generation, families once gathered around a box and listened to music together, with nary an isolating earbud. I don’t mean the compact disc player and CDs gathering dust in my 200-disc tower, or even the record player and still-viable vintage vinyl. More than 100 years ago our forebears filled their homes with sounds scanned from a shiny platter – not by a laser, but a steel needle. The century-old “mechanized musicians” were the entertainment centerpieces of posh private salons and public saloons, and an exhibit about these wonders, World of Mechanical Music, will be on display through Jan. 9 at the Orlando Science Center. The first encounter at the exhibit is a small hallway packed with hands-on activities centered on the science of sound. Kids can design a musical scroll that “plays” their name, see a soundwave on an oscilloscope and tug endlessly on a bellows-operated horn (pity the patient volunteer who staffs this section).
At the appointed hour, guests are ushered into a cozy simulation of a Victorian-era parlor, which leads to a larger room loaded with well-loved relics: a tabletop windup box circa 1834 that plays handmade cylinders and a massive 1899 Regina 12-disk jukebox (no more pesky changing giant metal platters!). There’s even an example of Thomas Edison’s early cylinder recorder, which he intended to be used as a Dictaphone until persuaded by investors to market it as a music-maker. The most incredible thing is that all these 19th-century artworks of polished hardwood and decorative glass are still in perfect playing order, and the docents are happy to harmoniously demonstrate.
Many guests will get a guided tour of the gallery from Wayne Myers, as I did during last Saturday’s grand opening. Myers, the organizing force behind the project, recruited fellow members of the Musical Box Society International’s Southeast Chapter to loan objects for display. He himself provided many of the antiques in the Christmas-themed entryway vignette and even built the exhibit’s modular walls in his own garage. Myers started collecting musical machines about five years ago after retiring from the aerospace industry, and his passion is infectious as he describes his air-powered automated banjo. His wife, Mary Ellen, not only hasn’t killed him over his hobby, she’s the co-chair of the exhibit.
As a final treat, on my way out I saw “De Drie Kransen,” an enormous trailer-mounted organ that owner Bill Hall had shipped over from Belgium 25 years ago and carefully rebuilt. Marveling at the belt-driven mechanism reading the accordion-bound sheet music (Hall has more than 100 songbooks of classical melodies and pop gems like “Let’s Go to the Hop”), I wondered if my own iDevice will still be operable in a year when its battery wears out, much less in a dozen decades. Sorry Steve Jobs, but I doubt it.
Later that evening, I drove a mile down Mills Avenue to Rhaphsodic Cooperative Company for some Guatemalan coffee and artwork. A vegan dessert bakery might not be the first venue that comes to mind for an art opening, but event promoter Brad Biggs is trying to change that. Biggs, along with business partner Jason Lee, has been aggressively advertising art events closer to the downtown area, including the First Friday Art Stoll at Ivanhoe Village. As I was among the first patrons to arrive, Biggs had plenty of time to chat me up about the challenges of effectively promoting art events in the “wait until the last minute” age of Facebook.
Soon artist Marsha De Broske appeared and introduced me to her collection (continuing through Dec. 4). De Broske has been active in the area for years as a bronze sculptor and teacher of 8 to 12 year olds at the Crealdé School of Art, but this is her first show dedicated to a material called Powertex (also sold as Paverpol). The method originated in Belgium and involves wrapping 100 percent cotton fabric over a wire base, then treating it with Powertex to make it appear like aged metal. The resulting faceless figures, many in yoga-style poses, possess a childlike yet haunting simplicity. On one wall in the small shot shop stands Broske’s assemblage of forms, titled Full Circle after Diane Mariechild’s quote on the feminine power of transformation. It might not quite be the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts in Valdosta, Ga., where her sculptures were recently exhibited with fellow Orlandoan John Carollo’s watercolors, but Orlando can use every art-friendly space it can get. Besides, where else can you get a kick-ass cruelty-free chocolate cupcake with your culture?