HELPER — In a town of about 1,800 people where most everyone knows each other, Melanie Steele wondered whether holding the 13th annual Helper Arts and Music Festival was appropriate right now.

This community and others that supply workers to the Crandall Canyon Mine and others in Carbon and Emery counties are still reeling from the news of six miners trapped in the mine since Aug. 6 and three workers killed Thursday during rescue attempts. One of the trapped miners is Don Erickson, who is from Helper.

"I say this is the most appropriate time," Steele, the festival's director, said Saturday. "This is a chance for us to celebrate our community."

Up and down Helper's Main Street, the road and sidewalk were filled with dozens of artists. They included Steele's husband, Ben Steele, and sculptor Karen Jobe Templeton, who also had her doubts about whether she should be making and selling art or staying at home to wait for more news of the miners.

"It's hard to get my life back to normal, knowing a few miles from here is a huge disaster," Templeton said.

But she didn't know what else to do, so she showed up to the festival, where she was busy sculpting people's likenesses from hunks of clay.

About 6,000 to 8,000 people from all over Utah were expected to attend the three-day festival, filling up Helper's two hotels from Friday through Sunday. Groups like Disgusting Brothers and the Saliva Sisters were providing live music on two separate stages at either end of the street.

There was meat cooking over open flames, Mexican food and frozen chocolate-covered bananas. People drifted in and out of open storefronts to view art or become art, if they wanted to stop long enough for a portrait on canvas.

"It's kind of an undiscovered gem," Melanie Steele said about the festival. "We like it this way."

While Helper has a small but flowering artistic community, most people here make their income from the railroad, which hauls coal mined in the area, or from the mines themselves. The Steeles moved here several years ago, purchasing a house for $50,000 and a huge downtown studio space for about $72,000.

In the time the Steeles have lived in Helper, they've been impressed by how tough its well-rooted residents are and how they bounce back from hard times, like a mine accident.

"Something of this magnitude makes you appreciate life," said Melanie Steele, referring to what's happening at the Crandall Canyon Mine.

The festival, she added, is intended to be a celebration of life. And, judging from those she has talked to, moving forward with the festival was the right thing to do.

"It's a chance for people to escape for five minutes," she said. "They're so tough — it speaks very well to what this community is all about."


Contributing: Jennifer AckermanE-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com