Bonnie Thornton considers herself a full-time volunteer and community promoter—and she can’t wait to introduce Memphians and visitors to the 170-plus artists she has worked to bring to the Artist Market at the 2015 RiverArtsFest. The event takes place October 23-25 in the South Main Historic District, and this year marks Bonnie’s seventh year as Artist Market director. She says the job is a year-round balancing act of recruiting, selecting and organizing the participating artists. “It is a complicated and time-consuming job, but I absolutely love it. I get to meet the most interesting people,” says Bonnie.

An Olive Branch, MS, native, who moved to Memphis 30 years ago, Bonnie is a retired registered nurse who co-owned and managed a small retail business selling accessories, gifts,  jewelry and art. She is married to David, a lawyer with Bass Berry Sims, and together, the couple has two grown sons and four four-legged children–two dogs and two cats, all of which are rescues. Bonnie is also actively involved with the Make-A-Wish chapter in Memphis, and serves on its board of directors. Welcome, Bonnie, as today’s FACE of Memphis.

Bonnie Thornotn

Bonnie Thornton has been the driving force behind the Artist Market at RiverArtsFest for seven years.

Why–and how–did you become involved in RiverArtsFest?

I was recruited by one of the founders of RiverArtsFest. An old friend mentioned that he and few people from Arts in the Park wanted to start a new festival downtown on South Main and asked me to come on board to help with the Artist Market. I always have been involved in the community, and actually had some experience in organizing a festival, so it was a natural fit for me. I liked the idea, and I have been happily involved for the last seven years. The Artist Market is remarkable in that it extends along South Main from Huling to Webster Street, making it five blocks long. We also have a demonstrating artist area where visitors can observe the artistic process and interact with local master artists. We also have three stages with more than 40 live performances by Memphis’ best musicians. I am so eager to introduce Memphis to the 2015 Artist Market–prepare to be impressed!

How would you describe the art that is offered at the market?

As a juried artist market, artists have to apply. We will receive about 400 applications each year, and they are all so good! However, only the very best of each category will be invited so the quality is outstanding. RiverArtsFest is unique in that we are able to attract artists from all over the country, but you will also see some familiar local faces in the Artist Market. Certainly, it will be the most diverse and eclectic group of artists! Many popular artists return each year, such as Craig McMillin, whose wheel-thrown ceramic platters span 52 inches wide, and Michael Cole, whose vintage-inspired photography and handcrafted frames seem to have been pulled directly from the archives of the natural history museum. Overall, patrons can expect to see original art in ceramics, drawing, digital art, glass, graphics and printmaking, jewelry, mixed media, metalworks, painting, photography, sculpture and wood.

Bonnie Thornton

Bonnie is a patron of the artists who exhibit at RiverArtsFest, including this piece by  Sharon Spillar.

What’s the biggest challenge of putting on the Artist Market?

RiverArtsFest is now in its ninth year and is fast becoming the best fine arts festival in the region. This is largely due to the fact that we have been able to recruit very talented artists to exhibit, thus attracting art enthusiasts who show up in search of original art. I need to make sure that trend continues, so my biggest challenge is ensuring that the art continues to grow in quality. I want to keep it fresh and interesting to the public by introducing new artists to the market, so I am actively recruiting all year to bring in the very best artists I can. At the same time, art collectors return with the expectation of seeing their favorite artist, so it is equally important to develop and maintain relationships with those artists who have previously exhibited in the festival.

Do you have an art collection? If so, is there any certain artist, or medium, or genre that you prefer?

I do collect art, and in fact have run out of room to hang it all. My house looks a little like a crazy quilt, but I like it that way. Fortunately, my husband loves art, as well, and we have collected several pieces from many of the RiverArtsFest artists. And while I could never narrow it down to one medium, I certainly enjoy the whimsical quality of mixed media and own pieces from artists such as Sloane Bib, Marc Villaneuva, Tiffany Owenby and Will Armstrong. And I am very much drawn to the colorful abstracts of Sharon Spillar and Diane French whose work I also own. Oh, and I may have a little problem with the jewelry–my husband has threatened an intervention if I don’t stop buying it!

Bonnie Thornton

An Elvis-inspired piece from L Ross Gallery is part of Bonnie’s collection.

Where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?

I love showing off downtown Memphis! There is so much energy downtown and it is so pedestrian-friendly. The Memphis Farmers Market is an absolute gem and should be experienced by all. Of course, I always take them to South Main to browse the eclectic shops and grab a bite at one of the outdoor cafes along the trolley line. The area has an edgy charm to it that I really like and I want to show off the neighborhood where RiverArtsFest is welcomed every year.

What’s your favorite Memphis attraction and why?

Why, RiverArtsFest, of course! But other than that, hmmm … that’s a tough one. I enjoy strolling through the Dixon Gardens and collecting ideas. And I love our wonderful zoo!  I am a huge fan of the Live at the Gardens concerts hosted by the Memphis Botanic Garden. But I guess if I had to choose one, it would have to be the Levitt Shell and its free concert series. It’s such a Memphis thing!  The friendly congregation of young and old sitting in the grass enjoying the night and listening to some really great music. You can’t beat it.

Bonnie Thornton

Bonnie plays with one of her four rescue pets, Handsome Jack.

Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …

Easy–to fly! Have you traveled lately? If only I had wings …

What one word describes you?

Enthusiastic. I appreciate a good idea and once you get me on board, I am fully committed and determined to give it my all.

What are your hobbies, and how do you unwind?

I love gardening; it is therapeutic for me to dig around in my yard. I also enjoy music, traveling, and spending time with my family and friends. My husband and I love to entertain, so we often have friends over for long, extended dinners. I am a fairly active person, so I try to spend several days a week walking or riding my bike on the Greenline. I also could not function without my weekly Pilates and yoga classes.

What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?

A nice meal, a good bottle of wine and a lively conversation!

Our thanks to Bonnie – and well wishes for a successful RiverArtsFest! And many thanks to Micki Martin, who photographed Bonnie for this article.