The reviews are in: This year’s Eaux Claires festival was an unquestionable success, bringing thousands of people to the area for two days of live music, interactive art exhibits and genuine collaboration.
For many, it was an introduction to Eau Claire. But for Blugolds attending the festival, it was an opportunity to share the city’s homegrown artistic community they’ve come to know so well.
After a weekend celebrating their new home town, two students share their experiences at the 2016 Eaux Claires festival.
As I watched Justin Vernon walk onstage and play the first song at this year’s Eaux Claires, I felt like my journey to Eau Claire had come full circle.
Looking back, I think my choice to come to UW-Eau Claire almost three years ago was based on this indescribable feeling that brewed inside me as I stepped foot on a campus I knew almost nothing about for the very first time.
It was a feeling of comfort and of belonging that made no sense to 16-year-old me – a girl who was entirely unsure of what she wanted from the college she would spend the next four years of her life at, learning and living.
It was early March of my junior year, and it was my very first college visit. My parents and I left early in the morning from our Twin Cities suburb to make it to Eau Claire in time for our 10 a.m. tour.
And what was I listening to? Bon Iver.
I had somehow discovered the “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” record earlier that week, and happened to listen to it in its entirety for the first time during that car ride.
I remember taking in the blustery, beautiful Wisconsin scenery, huge evergreens enveloped with snow as we traveled east on I-94 and thinking about how perfect it all was – how it all fit together; how it all felt right when I arrived on campus to the tune of Justin Vernon’s stunning, perfectly imperfect falsetto.
I had no idea who Justin Vernon was; I had no idea that the band originated in the city I was heading toward. I had no idea of the eclectic, vibrant, beautiful-beyond-compare community I was to become a part of.
Now, I’m not sure whether or not I believe in the idea of fate entirely – but I do believe it was fate that I was listening to Bon Iver that day. I do believe it was fate that I chose UW-Eau Claire, and the community in which it lives.
None of that sunk in until I was at this year’s Eaux Claires, where I was able to witness the world premiere of their first album in five years.
Much like the serendipity that brought me to this university, the festival brought over 20,000 people to celebrate not just music, but the arts as a fluid whole. Eaux Claires was a place of true collaboration, a place of artistic awakening and reawakening. It was two days of pure magic.
Whether or not it was fate that I chose Eau Claire, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have studied and lived in the midst of this grand artistic awakening taking place in the Chippewa Valley. I am so in love with this place, and I probably always will be, regardless of where life takes me after I graduate.
And that is so rare – not many students fall in love so totally with not just the university of their choice, but the community surrounding it.
While I was waiting for Bon Iver’s performance, I asked a few guys who hail from Madison but attend schools across the Midwest if they wish they had a music festival like this in their college community.
They told me that, of course, they wish they had something similar near their college. (Who wouldn’t?) But would it be the same? No. Even these guys, none of whom attend UW-Eau Claire or live in the community, understand that there’s something magical about this place that couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.
Nothing could possibly make me prouder to be a Blugold. Nothing could possibly make me more enthralled for the next half of my collegiate journey.
When I moved to Eau Claire to attend UWEC several years ago, I had a notion of what people meant when they said college would go by quickly. I understood that my time in Eau Claire would be temporary, transitional. Liminal. As the narrative goes, you enter college as a student and leave as a degree-holding bona fide adult. Everything else – the late library nights, the dorm showers, the classmates-turned-friends that come and go with each passing semester – is the in-between. As I enter my final year before crossing the threshold into “real adulthood” (which I’m told in and of itself is a myth), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the weight of this liminal period on my life.
But seeing a community come together to produce something like Eaux Claires makes me doubt I can convince myself this city is only my home for now and not forever.
I understand I’m romanticizing a bit, but Eaux Claires was literally two days spent in the middle of a forest on the banks of the Chippewa, surrounded by music and art and filled with a sense of serendipitous community. I saw Sean Carey perform on a stage humbly hidden between hardwoods and poison ivy. Authors hand-picked by Michael Perry wrote a story just for me and read it to me face-to-face. The entire festival was run behind-the-scenes by the tireless, passionate work of my own student peers. And Justin Vernon put in the time and effort to make the world see this hidden gem of a city the way he does. Experiencing all of that right here in Eau Claire pulled at my heart with something more than pride and nothing less than love.
Eau Claire feels like it’s at a liminality right now too, evolving into a rich, engaging source of growth and culture and community. Eaux Claires is helping us push towards the threshold, but here’s the thing – I don’t think we’ll ever get there. But that’s what’s beautiful about the Eau Claire I know: the transition never has to end. If you keep setting the bar higher, the progress – the in-between – becomes permanent. You never stop growing, and you never stop improving. That’s what I see happening here. That's what I see myself doing here.
This is in stark contrast to the town I grew up in, a place that felt stagnant and in which I felt no real sense of community. A few weeks ago, my mom came to visit me for the weekend, and as we walked through downtown I couldn’t help but brag: I showed her Haymarket Landing, the shiny new parking ramp, the site of the soon-to-be Confluence Arts Center, the Lismore, ECDC, the Informalist, The Oxbow Hotel and The Lakely. We walked to the Local Store. We visited the farmer’s market. In the midst of all of this, she asked me why this kind of revitalization has eluded our own hometown. “Why here?” she asked. “Why is this working?” And I didn’t know what to tell her.
But it struck me last weekend at Eaux Claires. Maybe all it takes is one person with an idea and a community who supports that idea. I suppose said person with an idea also being a Grammy winner couldn’t hurt. But our community is growing because we want it to. I don’t know if that’s something I can walk away from just yet.