When Kristi Jilson, the executive director of Westobou, came to Augusta back in 2014, she wanted to hear what people really thought about the city’s ever-evolving multi-arts festival with an unusual name.
“In my first year, I just did this listening tour,” Jilson said. “I decided, ‘I can’t make any major changes. I don’t want to stir the pot or open a can of worms or do anything crazy in my first year. I just want to know what people think.’”
So, she listened.
“That first year, over and over, I heard, ‘Westobou is so cool. We love Westobou. We want Westobou year-round,’” Jilson said. “That is where the Westobou Gallery on Broad Street came from. People were saying, ‘We want Westobou to be around more often, not just a five-day festival in the fall.’ And they were so passionate about being a part of it.”
Ever since Jilson became executive director about three years ago, more and more people have grown to know and love Westobou.
“I heard recently that people are saying they know the Westobou logo, they know the name and they know that they see the festival every year. That has all been accomplished since the festival began 10 years ago,” Jilson said. “I hope in the next 10 years, who we are rolls off of people’s tongues more easily. And I hope the experiences that we continue to offer help to inform the community of who we are and why exist.”
Over the next 10 years, Jilson wants Westobou’s mission of building a sense of community and inspiring cultural change through artistic experiences to be as familiar to citizens as the festival’s name and logo.
“I think in 10 years, I want our mission to be equally recognized as the five dots,” Jilson said, adding that Westobou has come a long way. “I remember my first year at Arts in the Heart, which was 2014, I felt like one in 10 people that we talked to were like, ‘Oh yeah. I totally know what Westobou is. I can’t wait to go.’ And those other nine people were like, ‘I don’t know. Tell me more about it.’ Well, this year, it was like only one in 10 people didn’t know what Westobou was. We really felt that this year.”
It is clear, Augustans have truly embraced Westobou over the past decade.
“We finally have enough time under our belt for people to understand what we are doing,” she said.
As a result, this year’s festival has a number of “throwback themes” celebrating Westobou’s 10th anniversary.
“For example, originally the festival was two weeks long, so, just this year, to celebrate 10 years, we are expanding back to two weeks,” Jilson said, explaining that the festival runs from Oct. 3-14 this year. “Also, we are doing a little throwback by bringing back people like, my personal favorite, (singer) Allen Stone. We brought him in 2014, and he’ll be back again this year.”
The 28-year-old Washington native stunned the music industry back in 2011 when his self-released and self-titled album climbed to the top 10 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and famous rock critic Ann Powers described Stone’s music as “meant for those of us who like our R&B slightly unkempt and exceedingly feelingful.”
Now, on his third full-length album, Stone will be closing out Westobou at the Imperial Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7 p.m.
“Probably one of my most memorable moments of, definitely my first year at Westobou, and probably of my almost four years here, I remember it was the craziest day during the 2014 festival,” Jilson said. “We had a huge event that we had to move inside because an incredible downpour was headed our way.”
People were pulling her in all directions, and Jilson remembered being extremely stressed out.
“But through it all, I was most excited to see Allen Stone the whole time,” she said. “I just really couldn’t wait to see that live show.”
Finally, when the chaos had died down, Jilson walked over to the James Brown Arena to see if everything was set up and ready to go.
“All of the lights were on in the arena, and I’m walking over and you can’t help but see this guy with curly, blonde, long hair and glasses, and I think he was on a skateboard,” Jilson said, adding that it was Allen Stone and he was busy talking to someone. “He was just standing on this skateboard and, as I walked up, I realized he was talking to Sharon Jones.”
Jones, the beloved Grammy-nominated soul and funk singer who led her longtime band the Dap-Kings, unfortunately died last year of pancreatic cancer.
But Jilson remembers that warm moment between the two artists.
“I was floored,” Jilson said. “They were both just so cool. That was such a memorable moment for me. Those are the moments that make Westobou truly special.”
For more information, check out westoboufestival.com.