Pawpaw Festival illuminates Ohio’s native education, art and fruit

The Athens Pawpaw Festival, originally a small one-day event at the Albany Fairgrounds, has grown in numbers and attractions over the past 24 years.

Chris Chmiel, festival founder and Athens County Commissioner, spends his entire year preparing for the weekend-long event.

“For me, it’s like climbing a mountain every year,” Chmiel said. “It’s like most of my life, really. (It’s) a bit stressful but worth the stress in the end.

One of the recent changes to the festival is a transition of tax agents. Chmiel said a new nonprofit was created for the festival: the Native Foods Education Organization. The current objective of the organization is to make the festival last; however, Chmiel said he may take on new projects in the future.

“Fortunately, we are lucky to have a very good team,” Chmiel said. “We have people who have been with the festival for about fourteen years…I think we have a really solid group.”

Over the years, more and more educational tents have come into being. This year the tents included topics such as heritage, sustainable living, the Ohio County Fair, holistic health, pollinators and, of course, papayas.

The pollinator tent included Wild Ones, a group that aspires to encourage environmentally friendly landscaping, a nursery called Natives in Harmony and Kevin “KC” Clark, “the Caterpillar Guy”,

Clark, wearing a black “Do you have any moths?” t-shirt, held four trailing green caterpillars in the palm of his hand. Clark said his interest in insects began in 1969 when a neighbor showed him how to raise caterpillars.

“You have to have the right habitat, you have to have the right other insects,” Clark said. “These caterpillars depend on ants, it’s a mutualistic relationship.”

Now Clark brings caterpillars to different schools and groups to educate children about caterpillars, moths and butterflies.

James Hunt, from Akron, Ohio, came to the Pawpaw Festival for his second year. Hunt and his family were encouraged to attend last year’s festival by their neighbors.

“Clean facilities, great for kids, slept well,” Hunt said. “Fresh air, great indoor kids activities, great music and we love the bubble guy.”

Although Hunt and his family had only attended one papaya festival before, they were happy to return.

“We haven’t had a vacation in about four years because of COVID,” Hunt said. “It’s our only free time and we choose to do it.”

ARTS/West, a local arts center in Athens, often attends the Pawpaw Festival but this year, for the first time, they have something to sell.

Carter Rice, program specialist at ARTS/West and self-identified tie-dye enthusiast, has united his love for tie-dye and his work at ARTS/West. With encouragement from his boss, Rice began selling clothes he dyed, some with an ARTS/West print, at the Nelsonville Music Festival.

A new aspect of tie-dye recovery is to incorporate acid mine drainage into the dye. The process is similar to normal tie-dye, but with the addition of soda ash to lighten the colors.

“Everything we do is based in Appalachia,” Rice said. “The items we’ve received from UpCycle are all from the area, acid mine drainage is from Appalachia. And I would consider myself an Appalachian artist because I’m from West Virginia.

This year was Rice’s first Pawpaw Festival. At the Nelsonville Music Festival, Rice tried a papaya for the first time while on a nature walk with TikTok’s ‘Black Forger’ Alexis Nikole Nelson.

“Now that I’ve seen it, I’ll probably always come back,” Rice said.


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Dora W. Clawson