By ALLEN RAU
When Bill Bledsoe created the first poster print celebrating the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival, he never dreamed the prints would become so popular.
Bledsoe, who began designing the prints in 1989, shared a story that speaks volumes about the impact of the festival and the festival inspired art.
“I think it was in 2002, this gentleman came up to me at the festival as I was signing prints, and he said ‘You’ve cost me $40,000.’ And I thought he was pulling my leg. He said, ‘We built an addition to our house to hang all of your artwork.’ And he pulled out a photograph and sure enough, there it was. He had spotlights, a window looking out over a lake in Vermont, and nothing but Storytelling artwork on all the walls.
“He said ‘It’s the nicest part of our house, we always go there to just re-live our memories in Jonesborough.’ It was really humbling for me. They had a stereo system in there so they could listen to tapes and CD’s of the storytellers. It was like a time capsule. So it does mean a lot to people and that’s why I’ve carried on.”
Bledsoe, a Jonesborough native, has the Storytelling festival coursing through his veins.
“This is my 29th year (designing prints for the festival). I grew up in Jonesborough and I’ve been to every Storytelling Festival since the first one.”
His first print in 1989 was partly a result of his job at the Parson’s Table.
“Jimmy Neil Smith owned the Parson’s Table for years and I worked there while I was going to school. I was actually his head cook and I was paying for my degree in art at ETSU. And I said to Jimmy, ‘ Of all the things you all make for the Storytelling Festival, there’s nothing that you have that says Jonesborough and Storytelling together’. To me they were inseparable. So I told Jimmy we ought to create a print, something that combines those two things.
“Of course, even though he was the founder and director, he had a board and most of the people on the board didn’t even live here. So (Smith) said ‘Well, we really can’t do that but if you want to do something independently, I encourage you.’”
The first print Bledsoe designed was called “The Tale Tree” and he paid for the posters out of his own pocket. In order to raise the necessary funds for the project, Bledsoe even sold his car to an ETSU professor. One thousand of the prints were made, and every one sold..
According to Bledsoe, Smith told him that any money made on the prints, would come right back to Bledsoe, who used those proceeds to fund the following year’s prints. After the first two successful years, the prints became part of the festival.
While Bledsoe sells fewer than the 1,000 he began with almost 30 years ago, he still allows the town to use the image on any merchandise and to keep the proceeds made from their sale.
According to Bledsoe, most folks who buy his prints are visitors.
“The majority of people who buy these, they’re not from here. They’re from all points of the country, different parts of the globe to some extent.”
As a Jonesborough native, he also got involved in order to give visitors a piece of the town and the festival.
“That’s how I got into it because I felt like there needs to be something that people can take with them that clearly illustrates the connection between the town and the Storytelling festival.
“I believed in it so much because I love Jonesborough, it’s my home. I love Storytelling, have grown up with it.”
Currently the head of the Art Department at Tusculum University, Bledsoe tries to involve his students in his project to give them an example of how they can make a living as an artist.
While the number of prints available began in the early years at 1,000, Bledsoe only releases 100 of the prints during the festival, which usually sell out quickly. However, those who miss out on the first edition may still be able to obtain one of the prints.
“What I’ll do is make a second edition just ordered for that weekend. In other words, they’ll come in and there’ll be a list of people. They’ll run the prints and mail them off.”
However, the second edition is not numbered.
Bledsoe said he continues to attend the festival, spending most of the day on Saturday at Mauk’s, where he personalizes prints for folks who buy them and catches up with attendees he’s become familiar with from the festival over the years.
As next year will be his 30th festival where he designs a print, he added that it’s always been about his hometown and the event it’s become famous for.
“I’m going to continue to do (the prints) until I can’t do it anymore. I’ve always wanted Storytelling to be a beneficiary of it, in every regard. I love Jonesborough and I love Storytelling. They go great together. They are the Reese’s Cup of art as far as I’m concerned.”