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Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Barry Simpson, co-owner of Twin Rocks.

BLUFF — Artist J.R. Lancaster lists his address as "Bluff, slightly off the beaten path, Utah." And yes, this small town in the southeast corner of the state is a bit out of the way.

Still, a surprising number of artists live in the area. There are weavers, writers, potters and painters.

Ian Corbett, a local Episcopal priest, is helping to organize the third annual Bluff Arts Festival, to be held next weekend. Corbett says the residents expect to host at least 500 visitors. The theme is "From the Canyon to the Stars." This year, nature writer Terry Tempest Williams is a featured speaker.

Over the course of three days, there will be basketmaking demonstrations, music, a history lecture, art exhibits at eight different sites, as well as writing workshops and panel discussions about personal narrative and the environment. The festival features other nature writers in addition to Williams, including her husband, Brooke Williams, and Mary Sojourner, Greer Chesher and Ann Weiler Walka.

On Sunday, the arts festival combines with a Navajo fair to feature food, dancing, crafts, games, a children's art workshop and a discussion of Navajo astronomy.

Brandon Johnson, program officer with the Utah Humanities Council, says the council gave a grant of $5,000 for this year's festival. (Other arts agencies contributed as well.) "We've funded it all three years," Johnson notes. "We are really interested in getting our programs around the state."

Because this festival emphasizes writing, discussions and history, Johnson explains, it is as much a humanities festival as it is an arts festival.

Corbett notes that San Juan County is the poorest in the state and is also the only county to have a non-Anglo majority. He thinks one of the main benefits of the festival is to give people an insight into each other's cultures and ways of looking at the world. Also, he adds, it gives exposure to artists and brings in offseason business for restaurants and motels.

Because Bluff does not have one central public building, the visitors will see the art on a gallery stroll on Saturday evening. (The stroll is titled Trail of the Artists.)

For example, Twin Rocks Trading Post will display Denna Carney's retablos and James Olson's jewelry and sculpture. A variety of Navajo basket artists will also be featured.

Twin Rocks owners and brothers, Steve and Barry Simpson, have been in business in Bluff for 18 years. They feature artists who live within 50 miles of Bluff and have seen their business take off since the advent of the Internet.

Their first love has always been baskets, Steve says. And as the world came to appreciate the beauty of the Navajo baskets, he has seen the prices double and double again.

The Simpson brothers grew up in nearby Monticello. Other gallery owners came from farther away.

Lancaster, who owns the Cloudwatcher Studio, started as a photographer, shooting black and white in graveyards of New Orleans. He came to the desert to hike and loved it here and stayed on. He calls his work "nontypical Southwestern."

His paintings might include sand or ash from a juniper fire. His assemblages might include one of his photos and some blue and white china found in the Bluff dump or perhaps a bird feather "from a nonendangered species." Lancaster has an entire series featuring flour sacks.

If you look at the Navajo baskets that line the wall of the Twin Rocks Trading Post, you'll see that a variety of modern subjects have made their way into the designs. The Simpson brothers encourage artists to experiment.

Lancaster says that is one of the things he likes about living in Bluff. "An artist should not let any rules dictate," he says. And this is a free sort of place.

He's happy he moved here to paint and take photos — and make music. He explains, "Out here in the fringelands, you better have more than one way to make a living."

If you go ...

What: Bluff Arts Festival

Where: various locations around town

When: Friday through Sunday

How much: free (preregistration is necessary for a writing workshop with Mary Sojourner on Saturday, or to read your poems that evening)

Phone: 435-672-2296

Web: www.bluffutah.org/artsfest.htm

Also: Nature writer Terry Tempest Williams leads discussions Friday, 2-4 p.m. and 6:30-9 p.m. at St. Christopher's Mission, and will speak and sign books Saturday, 8-9:30 a.m., at Comb Ridge Coffee Shop

E-mail: [email protected]