David Hill Taps into Hot Water Hills’ Wellspring of Volunteers

by David Hill

photography by Jeremy Rodgers

“Don’t worry,” Bill Solleder said to me as I accepted his old job as Executive Director of Low Key Arts. “Most of our events are run by our volunteers. You’re gonna love it.” This reassurance, coming from someone as hard-working and talented as Bill, sounded an awful lot like the kind of thing an experienced professional is supposed to say to a frightened rookie his first day on the job. “Don’t worry, our parachutes have always worked just fine, you’re gonna love it,” for example. But as I turned to my first task at Low Key Arts, planning the upcoming sixth annual Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Festival, I quickly realized that he wasn’t just blowing sunshine up my you-know-what to make me feel better.

Hot Water Hills is a big festival with dozens of musical acts from around the country and constant activities for young and old alike. No one person could carry it on his back alone. And no one person has to. There’s an army of volunteers behind the scenes who make it all happen. They aren’t just the ones you see at the event working the door or helping sort trash and recyclable goods. They aren’t just the people taking down the barricades when it’s all over. They are there months in advance, in every stage and aspect of the planning and organization. They do this work for free, in their spare time, and typically for one reason – they love Hot Springs.

It all begins with the Low Key Arts Board of Directors. Clayton Blackstock, Gabriel Fisher, Marisa Rodgers, Mary Sharp, Anne Quinn, Amelia Houser, Shea Childs, Randy Windle, Kahig Alesch, and Blake Butler aren’t your typical Board of Directors. They aren’t content to just attend meetings and vote. They are involved on the Board, so they can roll up their sleeves and get deeper into the work of putting on festivals like Hot Water Hills. “The Low Key Board is a working board, not a wealth board,” says Erin Holliday, Executive Director of Emergent Arts in Hot Springs. “It’s not invisible people making decisions. It’s the people at the events, behind the scenes, on the floor, in the crowd, volunteering and making the events come together.”

Holliday should know. She’s a former Low Key Arts board member herself. This year she and Emergent Arts are organizing an area of Hot Water Hills for artists young and old. There will be a large paint-by-numbers mural, face painting, and various hands-on workshops by artists free of charge. She’s also always involved in another important aspect of Hot Water Hills – the festival’s commitment to reducing waste. Hot Water Hills encourages recycling and the use of recyclable products at the two day festival. In the past, volunteers have had to literally dig through garbage and separate it. It isn’t a job for everybody, yet somehow there have always been people willing to do it. “That’s a huge testament to the dedication of the volunteers at Hot Water Hills,” Holliday says. “They literally get down and dirty.”

Board member, Amelia Houser agrees. She’s been involved in one way or another in every single Hot Water Hills. She’s now the perennial head of the art fair and retro rummage sale. “It’s upcycled art,” Houser explains. “We take old things and make them useful or fun.” Houser is an artist herself and no stranger to the many art fairs and festivals in Hot Springs. One way she tries to set Hot Water Hills apart from other art fairs she has participated in is by listening to artists and giving them the space they need to make the festival work for them. “Art people are used to a lot of rules,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of rules. We keep it simple.”

As a board member, Houser is involved in every Low Key Arts event, but Hot Water Hills remains one of her favorites. “It’s cool because it’s friendly to families and kids,” she explains. “A lot of people who like to volunteer for Valley of the Vapors will say, ‘that’s not my scene,’ but they are missing out. Just because Hot Water Hills is family friendly doesn’t mean it’s just for families.

There’s really something for everybody. Everybody works hard to put it on but everyone always has fun and is happy.” These things are all true about the festival itself, which really does make an effort to have something for everybody no matter your age or taste, but also about the experience volunteering to put the festival on as well. It takes over 120 volunteers doing all sorts of jobs to make the two-day festival come together. There’s Jim Perros, who heads up a team of volunteers who handle security for the event. Or Crystal Myers, who handles the hospitality for the musicians (including personalized gift bags curated by volunteers specifically for each band – a unique touch that has made it easy for Artistic Director Bobby Missile to bring acts who have played Low Key Arts events back to Hot Springs again and again). Or Anne Quinn, another board member who keeps multiple plates spinning in the air throughout the run-up and duration of the festival itself. There are so many people handling so many aspects of the festival, so there’s not nearly enough space in this magazine to list them all. And that, truly, is what makes Hot Water Hills such a unique experience for everyone who attends.

“Everyone brings their own talents to the table,” says Shea Childs, a board member who is this year’s Volunteer Coordinator and who together with Bill Solleder founded Low Key Arts. “Unlike other events, where volunteering is more task-oriented, like a job, Hot Water Hills lets people show off their skills and what they can do that they love.”

In addition to all of the volunteers and active board members are the organizations and local businesses that generously lend whatever they can to the event. Long before I got to Hot Springs, Low Key Arts and its supporters have been building relationships within the community. And these aren’t static, professional relationships. They’re really more like friendships. People don’t just give what they can – time, money, services – to Low Key Arts because they can get something back or because it’s charitable. They do it because they feel a kinship with the people, ideas, and vision that make up Low Key Arts.

All of those friendships are on display during Hot Water Hills. Yes, there is some really amazing music. Yes, there is some fantastic art. Yes, the kids will have a blast and leave happy and tired. But the real magic, the hot water in the hills if you’ll allow it, is the people you’ll meet and the friends you’ll make. That’s been the case for me so far. So yes, come on down to Hot Water Hills, but also sign up to volunteer. Don’t worry. You’re gonna love it.

About the Author: David Hill is originally from Hot Springs, Arkansas where he was raised in a family of carnies, grifters, hellraisers and story-tellers. He spent many years travelling the United States and Canada as a union organizer before settling down in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and three children.

David was a regular contributor to Grantland and a writer for theUpright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City. His work has been featured on This American Life, in New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, McSweeneys, and in various other publications in print and across the internet. His column “Fading the Vig: A Gambler’s Guide to Life” was selected in several Best of the Year lists including Slate and Longreads.

 David’s first book, “The Vapors: A Casino in Southern Gothic,” is forthcoming from Flatiron Books. He now serves as Interim Executive Director of the Hot Springs-based non-profit organization, Low Key Arts.