Andi Beyer (L) and Monica Sheppard (R)
Q1: Okay Andi and Monica, for our readers who don’t know, what is Chiaha?
MS: Well our slogan is that Chiaha is a “toe-tappin’, cider-sippin’, fun for everyone art’s festival.” And it is 54 years old this year! Connie Conn started it 54 years ago with the purpose to showcase art and artists from our region. She was involved with the Georgia Art Initiative, so she started it for that purpose. And really, that’s still our goal: showcasing artists. We have people come from all over, but it’s a lot of local people. We have lots of local art, and musicians, and food and all that stuff!
Q2: Can you give us a background of how you two got involved in Chiaha and what role you both play?
AB: When I first moved to Rome and I had three small kids at home, we had gone to the Chiaha Festival for a couple of years, and I loved it. And then I found out they were looking for an executive director. And I called up the then-president of the festival and told him, “look I really want to do this.” So he had me come to a meeting, and I met the rest of the board and fell in love with everybody and fell in love with the whole concept of organizing it. And that’s when I started. And that was 1991.
MS: My former husband and I used to do arts shows for a living. We were photographers, and we did nature landscape photography and did arts shows all over the place. But we moved back to Rome (we had gone to school at Berry College), because we loved it so much here and it was cheaper to live here. We immediately started doing the Chiaha Festival, and then I joined the board. And then a couple years after that, Andi asked me to be co-director. So we’ve now been co-executive directors for at least 15 years.
AB: Monica’s skill set and my skill set mesh really nicely. Where I’m weak, she’s strong and where she’s weak, I’m strong. So it works out really well!
Q3: Can you talk about Chiaha’s purpose to fund different artists and arts programs via grants?
AB: For years, Chiaha has funded scholarships to college students. So the arts and music grants we do is a relatively new thing we’ve expanded to in the last few years.
MS: The purpose of the Chiaha Festival has always been to raise money to put back into art education in some capacity. So for years, it was doing scholarships at the local colleges; and we’d sponsor students who got their art into national contests. We’d sponsor them to fly there an be at the ceremonies. Things like that. But we realized that as art and music programs in schools are shrinking and their funding is shrinking, that that was a real need. So we set up these art and music grants. Actually we started started with just art, then we added music.
AB: And we’ve added performing arts as well!
MS: Yes! So people from art programs, or a play, or a music program or anything [are eligible for our grants]. For instance, the Ridge & Valley Storytellers have gotten a grant from us several times, because they are promoting storytelling in schools. So it’s for pretty much anything that is creative, encouraging kids to be creative and encouraging artistic understanding. And we’re still doing scholarships for students at Berry College and Georgia Highlands.
AB: Plus, we’re still doing other sponsorships. Like we sponsor RIFF (Rome International Film Festival), and we’ve sponsored a couple of musicals at Rome Little Theatre.
MS: So we’re always open to people coming to us with ideas and saying “here’s what I think we should do, and here’s how it will benefit our community.”
Q4: Is there anything new and exciting we can expect from this year‘s festival?
AB: I think that every year it seems new and fresh because it’s a once a year thing. And I think in addition to raising money for art education, one of the things we pride ourselves on is actually putting on a community festival that brings people out and together. There are so many people who say it’s their favorite weekend of the year. And with it being 54 years old, you know there’s people who can remember going in strollers and now they’re bringing grandkids!
MS: The thing I think is most fun about Chiaha is that rich tradition. You know, the first year that Connie had this festival, there was a guy there with a pot, serving hot cider. The very first one. So for 54 years, we’ve had hot cider out of a cauldron. And we have families who use the festival for their family reunion every year. They get everyone together to come to Chiaha. So that tradition is a really cool thing. And because art and music is so important to us, this is our way to bring really cool stuff for people to enjoy and experience. And we have our kids tent where kids can make and create things.
AB: And there aren’t really any art galleries in town, so it’s a really great way for people to be exposed to the art community and make unique Christmas purchases.
MS: Every year there is new stuff, new people on the stage. And also our food is so fun to me because we have all these local restaurants!
Q5: On that note, What are you both most looking forward to this year at Chiaha?
AB: I think the whole building process. I love that you go to Ridge Ferry Park, and it’s just grass and a stage. Then this group of people who’ve been working together for so long, they come together and everybody does their thing. And out of nowhere, tents go up and music starts playing, and next thing you know, you’ve got this huge event there on the river. And everybody in the community wants to come out and enjoy it.
MS: I think that Rome is one of the coolest communities. We have such a great community here! And Chiaha to me is really a time to experience that in a really big way. Because when you walk around, you’re seeing people you know; you’re seeing people you know on the stage, people selling their art, people making the food. And I think for me, it’s one of the best examples of our wonderful, small-town community that we have. And I love just the way we can all be happy to see each other and support one another.