The special exhibits in the big barn

Learning about agriculture is a big part of the Fair.

Teens from Island Grown Schools have used exhibits to explain their summer projects, which include gleaning. –Courtesy Island Grown Schools

Exhibits of produce, art and handicrafts fill the Agricultural Hall at the fair, mostly grouped by categories — a plate of tomatoes here, a wall of watercolors there. Among these sit some larger displays, special exhibits by individuals and organizations which can combine art, research, agriculture and educational outreach. In some cases they’re the culmination of longer projects, or a way to share an organization’s ongoing work with fairgoers. Some exhibitors take their inspiration from the Fair’s theme, others from history, art, or just ambition to build a bigger and better display every year.

Learning about agriculture is a big part of the Fair, and also a key part of Island Grown School’s work. Their teen program is responsible for their exhibit, as part of a summer of service learning during which they’ve worked on projects at Island farms, helped with gleaning, and learned about food justice and food access. “Because students have been working in the gardens all summer long, we make a big harvest basket as part of our display,” says curriculum coordinator Kaila Allen-Posin. The teens’ display might incorporate any artistic media they’re interested in. “Last year they did this really cool weaving on a garden loom that we have, with different grasses and flowers and some yarn,” she says. “It was a physical representation of what they’d been learning.”

Rusty Gordon of Ghost Island Farm is known for working something spooky into his exhibit. Kathy Lobb, the hall manager, says that she always looks out for what’s hidden among Rusty’s vegetables. He began with just a wheelbarrow display, filled from his home garden. “It always had an arm in it, or fingers,” Mr. Gordon says. For the past few years, since he’s had his own commercial farm, he’s gotten more ambitious. “Now we want to do something that’s so big that people are just overwhelmed.” In past years, he’s added multi-media elements, including a digital slide show of the farm. This year, his theme is “Living Ghosts.” Look out for what’s alive there.

The Garden Club has been displaying work at the Fair since 1926, which is quite a long run. This year, Mary Lou Perry, the Garden Club’s vice-president for West Tisbury, is taking the lead. She also designed last year’s blue-ribbon-winning exhibit. “This year, with a Fair theme of “Sittin’ Pretty,” the natural focus for us is the Old Mill in West Tisbury,” says Linda Chapman, Communications Chair. The Old Mill has been the Garden Club’s home since 1942. “After decades of repair and restoration and plain hard work the Old Mill is ‘sittin’ pretty’ today,” Ms. Chapman says. “Until recently the Old Mill was the only building in West Tisbury to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.” The Garden Club’s 2016 exhibit will share the building’s history through artifacts, photographs, documents from the Garden Club’s archives, and more.

Tisbury Waterways started exhibiting at the Fair soon after the “new” Agricultural Hall was built. “We had an easel and a poster at the Tisbury Street Fair and we set it up in the front hall,” says Carol Abrahams. That first year, they won a prize and they’ve contributed a display even since. “We do it for education and public relations.” Ms. Abrahams also says that they try to include an interactive element, and that she hopes the Tisbury Waterways display will plant seeds of interest in conservation.

Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck sanctuary has had an exhibit at the Fair for the past five years. “We really wanted to share the work that we’re doing out here with a larger audience,” says Director Suzan Bellincampi. This year, their display features a living shoreline project, using all natural and biodegradable materials to build a salt marsh along the shores of Sengekontacket Pond. The marsh will combat erosion and improve the pond’s water quality. Having a presence at the Fair fits well with Mass Audubon’s goal of stimulating individual and institutional action through conservation, education, and advocacy.

Fred Hotchkiss, director of The Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, is putting together a display for the first time. He organizes a variety of educational events, including a National Fossil Day event, at the Oak Bluffs Library in October, and a citizen-scientist survey of horseshoe crab spawning in May and June. “I wanted to have a public presence at the Fair to promote these two events,” Mr. Hotchkiss says. He’ll be bringing fossils, setting up posters, and talking to people about science. “Everything we do is free and people can make careers and livelihoods as well as hobbies out of science,” he says.

Fair exhibits are contributed by Islanders of all ages, from children to the residents of Windemere. Nancy Cabot, a retired art teacher, organizes art classes at Windemere on alternate Tuesdays. She says that the participants are always excited to work on their exhibit. “This year we’re doing a Sitting Pretty theme, with chickens and pretty things for them to sit on, not just nests.” Their display is always in the same place, near the center of the hall where there’s plenty of room around it to accommodate those using walkers and in wheelchairs. “They love being part of the Fair,” Ms. Cabot says.

These are just some of the many special exhibits assembled by members of the community and local organizations. They’re a way of participating in the Fair, of reaching out to the rest of the community and of finding new ways to communicate knowledge, interests, and creativity. Special exhibits are found in various places around the hall, but most are concentrated in the northeast corner. There’s always something new in them, and a lot of tradition, too.