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International cultures in spotlight at festival

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Music, food, dance, stories and craftwork from around the world are being shared and celebrated this weekend at the 23rd annual gathering of the Salt Lake Living Traditions Festival at the downtown City and County Building.

Munch a Basque steak sandwich (battered and fried with pimentos) or some To'e Pinapo (Tahitian chilled tropical fruits) while you sip an alcohol-free Swiss apple beer and learn to play the Italian game of Bocce ball. And, yes, those are Scottish bagpipes providing the soundtrack.

Festival director Casey Jarman said the event is bigger, better and more diverse than ever and has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

"We've gone from 10 to 12 different communities to where we are this year, with maybe 40 to 50 ethnic groups participating," Jarman said.

The festival's raison d'etre is to create a gathering that provides the forum for ethnic communities to share their traditions in a setting that makes it easy and fun for the public to participate.

"Coming here ... you can get information about a community/culture directly from members of that culture, instead of from the news," Jarman said. "It provides another way to find understanding."

Originally held at what was then This Is the Place State Park, the festival has called the historic Salt Lake City and County Building grounds home for the past 18 years and has, from its inception, been a free event. Jarman said organizers make the best use of a small budget by being thrifty and getting support from a large group of municipal and state organizations.

"We do it as inexpensively as we can and work very hard to keep it a free event ... funding from our sponsors is critical," Jarman said. "It would be nice to get $5 from everybody who walks in, but that's not our goal."

Kearns resident Ingrid Hersman practices a folk-art tradition with roots throughout Eastern Europe — an egg-decorating technique that uses wax and colored dyes to produce intricate patterns and motifs reminiscent of stained glass. The practice predates Christianity, and Hersman was demonstrating the technique and a variety of finished eggs at her booth Saturday. She said the free entrance policy is appropriate to the goal of the gathering.

"I hope it stays free," Hersman said. "So many families show up here ... children and parents celebrating traditions that are passed down from parents to children ... it's how it should be."

Hersman first decorated eggs as a child growing up in Berlin. Her family would cut tree branches in the spring and put them in a vase to bud. Hersman would color eggs with her mother to hang from the branches as part of a celebration of Easter. Years later, Hersman was looking for a way to stay connected with a son who was called to an mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia. She met a woman who was Polish and Ukrainian and learned the technique, which is called pysanky in Ukrainian.

Hersman was one of more than 20 artists demonstrating their craftsmanship at the festival. The generational connections were common throughout the artisans, who represented a wide array of cultures. A father and daughter were at one booth, each hand-tying wool thread into tiny knots as part of the process of fashioning patterned Armenian rugs.

George Adoshian Jr. and his daughter Diane Moffat were each at looms, busy with the intricate work. Both were following gridded patterns printed on paper — each square representing a single knot. Moffat said she had been working on her project for "a couple of years."

"This rug will probably take ... oh, about 300 hours," Moffat said.

One piece on display, a rug about 3 feet by 5 feet with a burgundy background and striking pattern, had an attached sheet of statistics — 150,000 knots, one mile of cotton string, five miles of wool yarn, 800 hours of labor.

In addition to the artist demonstrations, attendees can enjoy food from 20 different vendors, music throughout the day, cooking demonstrations and special activities for kids. The festival runs through today, from noon to 7 p.m.

E-mail: araymond@desnews.com