Annual Astoria art festival highlights local performers

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Natalia Paruz has an eclectic palette of artistic tastes.

Once a dancer at the Martha Graham School, she is now a professional musician who plays hand bells and the musical saw.

But when crowds flow through her neighborhood for the Astoria/30th Avenue Summerfest Sunday, Paruz will put her own talents on the back burner as she showcases artists from across the city in the third annual “Arts Fair @ Athens Square.”

“That’s my neighborhood, so I like to do something for my neighborhood, for the community in which I live — presenting the local artists to the community here as well as the community to the artists,” she said last week as she was settling last-minute details for the program.

When Paruz first put the fair together two years ago, it was never meant to become an annual event.

“To begin with, I was just doing it as a one-time thing because there were all these artists who were talking about how nice it would be to have it,” said Paruz, who lives just a few blocks away from Athens Square Park.

But what started in the summer of 2000 as an intimate affair with a few artists and a small audience has exploded into a bustling event. Last year Paruz tapped into a much larger crowd by scheduling her fair to coincide with the 30th Avenue street fair, a double billing that will recur Sunday when artists and merchants again unite.

If Paruz has a knack at attracting creative people, perhaps it has something to do with her own talents. Although her dance career was cut short when she was struck by a taxi cab eight years ago, she resumed her creative life by teaching herself to play two folk instruments, the hand bells and the saw.

On a trip to Austria after her accident, she saw an entrancing performance by a musical saw player who refused her requests for lessons because he said it is a self-taught art form. So Paruz came home and borrowed her landlady’s saw, ultimately learning how to eke out a melody by stroking its back edge with a violin bow.

She also began amassing a collection of cow bells during the same vacation after noticing that herds of cows grazing in the Austrian countryside each wore bells of a different pitch.

“While we were at the hotel, I tried playing “Happy Birthday To You” on the bells, and it worked,” she recalled. ‘I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, maybe I have something here!’”

She could probably say the same thing of her festival, which has given Astoria’s vibrant community of artists a forum in which to show their work.

“I don’t remember anything like this ever happening,” said Dennis Kyriakos, a magician who grew up in the neighborhood and now lives down the street from the park.

Kyriakos is one of about 20 performers who will share the stage at the park between noon and 6 p.m., putting on acts that range from Middle Eastern dance to a performance artist’s rendition of an extraterrestrial masquerading as a journalist.

More than 70 visual artists will also display their work across Athens Square Park, which is located on 30th Avenue at 30th Street. Although most of the artists are based in the city, people from as far as Denmark, Thailand and Tennessee will also be showing off their creativity.

“It’s really growing, which is cool. It’s bringing people to Astoria,” Paruz said. “We’re turning into an international arts fair.”

The fair will last from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 21. The rain date is July 28. For more information, call 718-728-1115, or e-mail sawladynyc@aol.com

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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