A scratchboard illustration by Chandra Jennings. /Courtesy of Michigan Art Gallery

Though gray skies loomed over the weekend, the 83rd Annual Atlanta Dogwood Festival began on April 12 with overflowing vibrancy. Thousands of patrons flowed into the stalls that lined Piedmont Park, transforming the park into a spectrum of colorful art, delicious food and bustling activity. The festival bubbled with conversation as children leapt onto amusement park rides, couples sought art to furnish new homes and long-time art patrons teemed about the bountiful collections.

One of the most competitive art shows in the country, the Atlanta Dogwood Festival is known for its massive scale and central location, ideal for artists and purchasers alike. It’s not hard to see why — the festival sits at the heart of Midtown Atlanta and offers something for everyone. Dogs, which are normally banned from the event, bounded across the lawns in a festival race. Dance and song groups, both amateur and professional, performed on Lake Clara Meer in a day-long series of multicultural performances.

The majority of the festival featured alternating sections of visual art and food booths. Dogwood boasts the usual festival charm. Stands offer fresh-squeezed lemonade, and newly-spun cotton candy. The air, thick with the smell of sugar and barbecue, hangs over children sporting painted masks and clowns juggling rainbow-hued balls. Though fairly crowded with booths and visitors, it was nearly impossible to get caught in any line for too long due to the sheer number of stalls.

The booths showcased artist of all genres. Chandra Jennings, an artist from Grand Haven, Mich., said the festival treated its artists well, offering an easy set-up and an eager crowd.

Though it was only Jennings’ first appearance at Dogwood, she managed to capture the award for Best of Graphics. It was not a surprising win, as Jennings crafts stunningly detailed scratchboard illustrations. Professionally an environmental scientist, Jennings rediscovered scratchboard a decade after her teenage introduction to the medium. She scratches fine white line into dark boards to create her work, which captures the spirit of nature through its attention to detail, such as an otter’s soft fur or an owl’s striking eyes.

The festival’s judgment rubric is strictly kept secret, though Jennings presumes that they judge “everything, from how you set-up your booth, to the quality of the work that you’re offering.”

Another first-time participant, photographer and digital artist James Cole from Plainfield, Ill., agreed with Jennings’ assessment, describing the “blind” judging system as having anonymous judges and secretive scoring system. Cole went on to win the Best of Photography and Digital Art award for his striking portraits.

After retiring from a career in landscape photography seven months ago, Cole began selling his personal art full time. Though he initially built a career on landscape photography, he recalled wanting to pursue more meaning in photography. He traveled to India and Cuba, developing his “street documentary” style, which he now teaches to other photographers in his international travel program.

He said he aims to travel “not as a tourist, but as a part of culture,” and to bring back his experiences, and the relationships he built, to the United States. The photographs are honest and documentary, with little pretense. His respect to his craft shines through in his visceral and spirited photographs, which he also sells in the forms of posters and vertical blocks.

The Atlanta Dogwood Festival is not only a home to artists and admirers, but an introduction into either group. If you don’t leave with a sculpture or painting, you’ll probably leave with a lemonade in hand.