SPARKcon: Arts ignited in Raleigh, creatively and classily | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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SPARKcon: Arts ignited in Raleigh, creatively and classily 

Little SPARKcon sure has grown. It seems like only yesterday that it was a gleam in the eyes of Beth and Aly Khalifa, its mom and dad, and all its aunts and uncles at the Designbox collective and some other artsy places in Raleigh. Hard to believe that SPARKcon 2010 will be the 5th annual and is so precocious you'll need QR (location) codes on your phone and an app to know exactly what's coming up next.

Or, if you don't have an app and—like me—have no idea what a QR code would even look like, just head down to Fayetteville Street in Raleigh from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. You'll find sparks going off everywhere, or should I say, SPARKs, from the Capitol to the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, with other downtown streets playing supporting roles.

Officially, SPARKcon is "an innovative, multi-disciplinary art and design festival that celebrates creativity in the Triangle," according to the organizers.

For short, "it's a giant show-and-tell," says Sarah Powers, executive director of the Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh, featuring everything from street painting to theater bits from Hamlet, Hairspray and To Kill a Mockingbird, among others, courtesy of the North Carolina Theater and seven local theater companies. That's along with 150 music events at a dozen venues and a street bazaar and a circus tent. All told, there are at least 175 events going on, so many that it's impossible to list them all outside of a website.

So, naturally, there is a superb website at www.SPARKcon.com.

From its modest beginnings, when it merely aspired to "ignite the creative hub of the South"—and yes, Virginia, we are talking about the Triangle—SPARKcon in its fifth year is really accomplishing that mission in style.

While it unfolds, at least 1,500 creative folks—artists, gamers, musicians, designers—will showcase what they do at events that are, with very few exceptions, free.

As they do, they'll doubtless spark the creative juices in others.

Remember the first SPARKcon, when fashionSPARK was such an unexpected smash? It was the last thing added to the program and a question mark almost until they cued the music. In year five, it's billed as the biggest fashion show in the Triangle, with 25 area designers decorating the runway for an expected audience of thousands in City Plaza. More important, fashionSPARK helped light a fire under Raleigh as a new center for designers and clothing manufacturers like the DRC Clothing Co. and Raleigh Denim.

A couple of years later, break-dancers broke in to steal the show, or least borrow it, with an amazing street performance immediately after fashionSPARK. Soon their acts were in demand, and they were getting paid to show up at other festivals. Ditto the graffiti artists.

So last year, the break-dancers were featured on the big SPARKcon stage along with a few acrobats who—in true SPARKcon style—went forth thereafter and organized a new circusSPARK, complete with a big top, which Aly Khalifa predicts will be the breakout feature of SPARKcon 2010.

The creation of circusSPARK, Khalifa adds, underlines another major purpose of SPARKcon, which is generating networks for established artists to use and new artists to be inspired by. "We're doing leadership training for the creative class. That's the mechanism that makes it work."

It's certainly the mechanism that allows what is now a major festival to operate on a shoestring budget of $70,000. None of the performers or participants is paid. All are volunteers helping to nurture artistry—and audiences for artistry—in the region.

Last year, for example, Kaci Torres and Katie Magee performed as yoga acrobats. This year, the two held workshops all over the Triangle, drawing out jugglers, magicians, aerial artists and fire dancers who collectively give the Triangle a new act we didn't know—nor did they know of them—we had.

Thus, when Khalifa heard that the organizers of Raleigh Wide Open were thinking of bringing in an aerial act from Toronto (at great expense), he was able to suggest that they instead hire a Triangle troupe that circusSPARK would bring together. Which is what they did.

"Usually," he adds with a smile, "performers do SPARKcon for free and out of it get discovered for paying gigs. In this case, circusSPARK had a paying gig before they ever opened at SPARKcon."

And one more thing. In case you're interested, the fire dancers will be giving lesssons—free. "Who doesn't want to learn to fire dance?" Khalifa asks.

One other thing that's new this year: The Visual Arts Exchange is now the managing sponsor, giving SPARKcon a home and a staff of four to keep the books, rent the stages, engage the port-o-potties and handle the myriad other tasks that kept the volunteers up nights a year ago. Powers was among them, as she has been every year since the beginning. "We have forms for everything," she laughs.

Seriously, though, the event is doing just what it is supposed to do, growing organically as past participants return the following year with whole SPARKS to put on and new people materializing every day without Powers or the Khalifas knowing—or needing to know—who sent them.

They call it their "open-source spirit" that gets the best from people. And after five years, they say, Aly Khalifa and Sarah Powers finishing each other's sentences, artists trust that the pair mean what they say: If an artist has something good to offer and is willing to put in the work, SPARKcon's networks will help it come off in the best possible fashion.

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