Ruston woodworker Joshua Mitchell works to bring together creatives as well as the larger community
A rockslide of crawfish crumbling out onto awaiting trays meets passersby as the crowds seek out the Railroad Festival, downtown Ruston’s latest community of creative revelry. The festival is a lively celebration of the creativity and culture of north Louisiana. Nestled in the heart of downtown Ruston, the event attracted a handful of Louisiana bands, food trucks and vendors, and more than one hundred makers from around Louisiana and the region.
On the other side of the food trucks and a sloping lawn, the Seratones warm up in big brassy top notes. Behind shades and a standard-issue event badge, festival founder Joshua Mitchell greets two friends with big bear hugs.
From a narrow slip of an alley next to Pontchatoulas restaurant and its outboard crawfish-boiling brigade, this 30-year-old artist gives his friends the scoop on the event, and there’s plenty to dish.
More than 100 makers’ tents shotgun a strip of land between a retail-dominated row of development and the former lanes of the Rock Island Line, forming the backbone of this brand new event that, on this hot April day, seems to have drawn hundreds of folk from all across north Louisiana and beyond. This first-year festival is the brainchild of Mitchell, himself a woodworker and designer, whose work as an event organizer was born out of a desire to explore the space between creator and consumer.
“The term maker already has such a general, sometimes misunderstood definition, and I really wanted to explore what it meant to creatives and the general public of the area,” Mitchell says. “This is so important, because when you pick up something from an event like this, you feel like you’re going home with a piece of that artist, and after meeting them you can connect with the piece on a more personal level.”
A few years ago, Mitchell saw a need in Ruston for a more collective culture that can connect buyers directly with the regional creatives who make their favorite things. He first founded Ruston Makers Fair. Now, Railroad Fest is the same idea plugged into a higher wattage amplifier. But Mitchell’s events are less an addition to, and more of a reflection of the city he’s grown to appreciate more and more.
“Ruston is the definition of a small town with big dreams,” says Mitchell, who was born in Darmstadt, Germany, and spent much of his youth in Maryland. “And through the process of creating this festival I’ve gotten a glimpse of how we can make progress. I’ve worked closely with the city and city organizations throughout, and I’ve really been blown away by their work ethic and open mindedness.”
Mitchell was a curious child, he says, always tinkering with things, modifying toys and tools and pieces of artwork.
“I just didn’t like things to be normal,” he says. “They had to be added to or fixed in some way.”
That desire for change and disdain for malaise often led him to travel outside of his new hometown of Ruston.
“There was just never anything to do here,” Mitchell recalls. “And that’s probably the biggest reason why I’ve chosen now to build things, to do something here rather than constantly scurry away.”
Mitchell studied architecture at Louisiana Tech for a couple of years but left to start his own firm making custom furniture, called Jodami Design. As makers meet one another and each passionately shares their story with patrons who walk into these booths as strangers and walk out as friends, Mitchell’s Railroad Festival bares the handprints of a designer — the unmistakable mark of intentionality and purpose pervades these communal festival grounds.
“What happens with makers’ fairs is that the public gets genuinely excited about supporting local artists and businesses and in turn, those makers get excited about participating in a local event,” he says. “It all goes hand in hand. The city of Ruston as a whole is a prime example of this notion, and it’s exciting to see.”
What do you do when you’re not working in your studio or planning your next event?
These days if I’m not working I’m exploring. Kayaking is one of my favorite things to do to pass the time. Ruston has great spots to do that and to venture out, for sure. The bayous of Monroe are beautiful and made for adventure, too. I really enjoy being on the water. Other than that I’m probably just getting out and trekking somewhere. I try to get up to Arkansas and a couple other places to camp and explore when I can. I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy.
Who has inspired you the most along the way?
People that have inspired me along the way would be any maker or artist who is making things happen. It inspires me even further when their passion is their main gig. It’s tough to muster up the courage to take that leap and when I see artists working hard and doing well, it inspires me.
Do you ever get back to Germany or have distinct memories of it?
I wasn’t in Germany long enough to have any strong memories and unfortunately have not been back yet. We bounced around to a couple of places on the East Coast, but when I think back on growing up, I miss Maryland the most. I guess you could say those were some of my wonder years where I was formulating opinions about life and all the things around me.