Melrose to host 48th annual Arts and Crafts Festival under new director Leah Dunn Witman

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter
As executive director of historic Melrose Plantation, Leah Dunn Witman is preparing to host the annual Arts and Crafts Festival April 23-24.
Witman has two priorities in mind. Her mission is preserving the legacy of Melrose as an historic site, while her goal is to restore it as the center of a creative community. “The future plan for Melrose is to gain more membership, have more community involvement, host more programs and to get people back out (here) to keep the memory of Melrose alive,” she said.
With more than two decades of event planning experience, Witman is no stranger to organizing celebrations. “We hope to host more events and bigger events at Melrose.” Her first time hosting the Arts and Crafts Festival promises to be well attended “We have over 80 vendors now, so we’re excited.” she says.

This article published in the April 21, 2022, print edition

Witman originally studied theater and spent decades as a performer for the Walt Disney World theme park where she acted in plays and featured in promotional activities. Now she is applying her performative experience to the history of Melrose. She hopes enhancing the presentation of Melrose’s story will illustrate dramatic elements, “so people can try to relate to the story more, that’s where the theater experience comes in,” she says.

As Witman sees it, local involvement is key. “We know there is a need for more community atmosphere,” she says. “We want to be able to offer whatever we can to the community.” She sees the Arts and Crafts Festival as an opportunity for volunteers to participate and explore Melrose at the same time, “If they want to be on the list they can call me or email me at 318-663-0143 and the email is emailmelroseplantation@gmail.com.” Afterward, she’s looking forward to a range of activities including participating in bridal shows, hosting events and organizing holiday functions.
Leah Dunn Witman discusses removal of a honey bee hive with beekeeper Tim Haley.

One of Witman’s goals is to rebuild Melrose’s ties to the art community. “We’re going to be hosting different artists on the property; just what Melrose is known for.” She describes Melrose’s partnership with NSU to offer their students a gallery space during the festival. “The art department at Northwestern (are) going to have some students in the barn,” she says. They won’t be handling cattle or collecting eggs though. “They’ll be selling their artwork,” she clarifies.
Witman in character for a theater performance

Another of Witman’s plans is to collaborate with educators to develop curriculum for every grade. “We’re hoping to partner with local teachers in the central Louisiana area to create curriculum,” she says. “When they get to Melrose they’ll have a little bit of the background information for what they’re learning about that day.” She believes relating the story of Melrose to broader historical topics would also bring more families. “Because I homeschool my kids, I know that would be such a unique find,” she says.

Witman is looking forward to raising Melrose’s profile in the community. “People in town are going to start hearing about us a lot more again,” she says. “We’re going to be on everyone’s radar.”

Melrose Arts & Crafts Festival April 23 – 24
The 48th annual Melrose Arts and Crafts Festival is scheduled for April 23 -24 according to Vicki Parrish, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), sponsor of the event.
This annual outdoor event will feature more than 80 vendors selling hand-made items, many of which are one-of-a-kind. Among the items available will be original art, gourmet tea and jellies, hand-made jewelry, clothing, candles, pottery, wreaths, toys, woodworking products, wrought iron artwork and other arts and crafts.
Guided tours of the plantation home, the “Big House,” and African House will be available. Many renowned writers and artists visited and lived at the plantation. Probably the best known resident of Melrose was Clementine Hunter, who came to the plantation as a field hand and taught herself to paint using paints and brushes discarded by an artist at Melrose. The restored Clementine Hunter murals are on display in their original home on the second floor of the African House. Hunter’s paintings have gained national and international notoriety, and some of her works hang in the Louvre in Paris. She is one of the most recognized primitive artists in Louisiana history.
The festival is sponsored by APHN and annually attracts more than 2,000 visitors during the two-day event. The Melrose Arts and Crafts Festival will open at 9 a.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 6-12. Tickets for tours of the Big House are $5.
Additional information about Historic Melrose and the annual Arts and Crafts Festival may be found at: http://www.melroseplantation.org/festivals. Tickets can be pre-purchased on Eventbrite at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/melrose-arts-and-crafts-festival-tickets-291317517537