My Journey to LEAF Festival

by jmckee10

While walking from the shuttle bus at gate three to Eden Hall, I am struck by a diverse and joyful crowd that breathes life into the Lake Eden Arts Festival. Young adults laugh and share stories around their campsite, tucked away in a festive network of tents, easy-ups, tapestries and hammocks. Busy children buzz among parents and grandparents and babble about the thrilling possibilities of fun that await them. Pre-teens gleefully lick ice cream cones, momentarily forgetting the pressures of growing up, and lose themselves in uncomplicated elation.

Twice a year – in May and October – nature’s beauty blends with the wonder of human creativity, spontaneity and love to create an unforgettable and transformative celebration. The LEAF festival is organized by a non-profit of the same name. Through festivals, community events and arts educational programs, LEAF builds community, connects cultures and enriches lives. There are many opportunities to become involved with LEAF, and those are definitely opportunities worth pursuing.

LEAF occurs in a pristine setting perfect for a festive weekend retreat. 600 acres of open fields, winding hiking and running trails, mountain streams and the beautiful Lake Eden nestle between the mountains of Black Mountain, North Carolina. The emerald peaks form a crown that surrounds the grounds, creating a cozy atmosphere of natural grandeur, clarity and security. In addition to the indigenous beauty, the LEAF festival grounds provide rustic cabins and barns, a lakeside dock, opportunities for canoeing and paddle boarding and a zooming zip line that soars over the lake!

While meandering from Eden Hall to The Barn, I pass a gypsy band producing jovial tunes out of an eclectic van to the delight of a spontaneous, energetic crowd. A man teaches his son chess on an oversized, black and white chessboard by the lake. Dancers on stilts perform a springtime routine of bees pollinating flowers. A woman relaxes on a bench with a breathtaking vantage point of Lake Eden and the surrounding mountains. Children shriek joyfully while playing tag among the campsites. A didgeridoo tutorial appears to be underway. Musicians, dancers, performers and visual artists mingle with families, lovers, friends and generations of music and arts lovers. Smiles, laughter and good vibes saturate the entire festival.

A variety of local food vendors offer organic, gluten free and vegan options as well as traditional crowd-pleasers like savory, smoky BBQ and hand-tossed pizza. Pisgah Brewing Co., Highland Brewing Co. and New Belgium serve local and national brews, including Pisgah Brewing’s LEAF Amber Ale, crafted especially for the festival.

It is easy to be captivated by the plethora of interactive arts, vendors, workshops and impromptu performances. However, the heart of LEAF reveals itself in the interactions between musicians and a captivated audience.

Martha Redbone inspires a crowded Eden Hall to dance to her folksy, thumping Appalachian beats, sing with her earthy, heart-felt holler and sway to tunes evoking nostalgic visions of rural Southern values.

R. Carlos Nakai captivates The Barn audience with haunting Native American flute music that sounds at once desolate and serene. He – like the other performers invited to LEAF – is a fierce advocate of music and arts education for the youth. Through his performance and educational efforts, Nakai instills the responsibility to pass on our talents and actively collaborate with and learn from open-minded artists of all walks of life.

Charles Bradley exemplifies the fact that an entertainer can emerge from any walk of life. The spirited, raucous and passionate 66-year-old performer dazzles both the crowd and members of his backing band, The Extraordinaires, as he leads us through a lyrical journey of love, heartache, confusion and determination. As captivated as I am with Mr. Bradley, I cannot help but be drawn to the gazes of immense pride, respect and awe that The Extraordinaires bestow upon the spirited Screaming Eagle of Soul.

The three aforementioned acts represent devotion to the craft of creating innovative music, inspiring creativity in all walks of life and encouraging a generation of youth through music and arts education. However, the performers at LEAF encompass a diverse range of global musicians who hail from as close as the Appalachian region to as far away as Africa and Australia. Every performer believes in the importance of sharing his or her craft with admiring fans and devoted youth musicians.

Walking back to the shuttle bus that returns a reflective and satisfied group to the parking lot, a strange but appropriate metaphor pops in my head. Like the shiny, reflective disco ball hanging above the stage in The Barn, creativity is a wondrous thing that redirects inspiration and beauty in multiple directions. To be creative is not to hoard one’s talents. Creativity comes with an obligation to inspire, to empower younger generations through education and to reflect brilliance in all directions. The message I gained from my experience at LEAF is this: the more artists share their gifts, the more those exploring their creativity can shine and the brighter this world inevitably becomes.

For more information about everything LEAF:

Words by: Alexandra Pitzer and Joseph McKee

Photographs by: Joseph McKee



Charles Bradley










So many activities!




Martha Redbone