Taking that first step is the key.
“Doors open and you walk through them,” said Jennifer Pickering. “Connecting cultures throughout the world with the cultures of Western North Carolina, that has remained at the core. What changes is how it all looks.”
Now in its 23rd year, Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) has grown from a twice-a-year celebration of local, regional, national, and international culture and art to an entity that flows like water, moving to wherever it finds space to expand.
And at the helm of LEAF is Pickering, the founder and executive director. From humble beginnings, where no idea was too far-fetched, the organization has connected the dots of culture around the world from its headquarters in Black Mountain.
“We use our resources to complement other programs in communities. And we’ve got all the international programs, everything weaved together at the festivals,” Pickering said. “The idea is to become year round. [We’d like] for international cultures to come here throughout the year, to have this area as a landing spot for all these people and artists.”
A beehive of creativity and compassion, LEAF’s wildly popular multi-day spring and fall festivals have added a summer shindig in downtown Asheville in recent years. This is in addition to its continued innovation and increase in community outreach programs, where they provide the catalyst to spark the ideas of others in WNC and beyond.
“LEAF is a unique model that is able to connect people to a lot of different cultures, new music, and art,” Pickering said. “And also have a way that have a level of traditions and connections with family and friends in a positive environment, in a place that shows all the great aspects of humanity. LEAF is to you whatever you want it to be, and it might change over the years, whether you have kids with you or not, or where you are in your life as the years go along.”
Now that LEAF has created a strong, unbreakable foundation of partnerships that stretch around the world, the organization is looking in the mirror, trying to see its next step.
“We asked ourselves if what we do is meaningful enough and positively social changing enough that we really need to figure out how to find stability at the next level. And the answer we came with was: yes,” Pickering said. “There’s a lot of really great possibilities on the horizon.”
Though the world at large may seem like a place where cultures seem to clash more than connect, Pickering will be the first to defend the latter. LEAF is proof positive that the lines of social, economic, political, cultural, and religious division blur once people from all walks of life find common ground through the arts.
“We really see LEAF as a sanctuary, and also a bridge,” Pickering said. “We’re on a journey to understand how we can become more equitable and open platforms that don’t push, but invite people to step beyond their own perceptions, to find those moments that you can step into someone’s world and erase some of those ‘-isms.’”