With the 2nd Sundays Art and Music Festival returning for its ninth year Sunday, founder Shirley Vermillion reflects on the impact she’s made on the Williamsburg cultural landscape since she moved to the city in 2001.
Vermillion grew up in a Northern Neck household devoid of the usual forms of entertainment, such as TV or even radio, and the surrounding area offered little else.
“I had never really experienced art, or shows or galleries,” she said.
That quickly changed with the newfound freedom of young adulthood when she moved to Seattle and roomed with four other young women. The experiences there varied greatly from the ones she had growing up on the opposite coast.
“We just lived in some eclectic little neighborhood where there were cool little coffee shops,” Vermillion said. “Every neighborhood had its own little street festival.”
After starting a family with husband Pete, they moved back east to Williamsburg. It being a college town, she expected a vibrant live music scene.
“But I was disappointed,” she said.
Vermillion recalled scouring different information sources looking for such events, finding some success at places such as J.M. Randall’s and Squire’s Deli. In contrast with her upbringing, Vermillion felt it was important for her children to experience music, and she felt it was best experienced live, being created right there in the moment.
Living in First Colony, Vermillion gained experience booking music while serving as volunteer coordinator for the neighborhood’s recreation committee. Working as a dental hygienist in Norge, she also encountered patients who spoke of their arts and crafts, which included lamenting the lack of opportunities to showcase and sell them in the area.
Those conversations helped shape Vermillion’s vision for 2nd Sundays.
One Sunday into many
Vermillion approached the team at Blue Talon Bistro, which closed part of Prince George Street for outdoor movies on summer Sunday nights, to ask whether they were interested in starting a street festival similar to the ones she loved in Seattle. They thought they might help her navigate dealing with the city to bring her idea to life.
The first 2nd Sunday in 2010 was a relatively modest, three-hour June affair, bringing a few vendors and a single musician to one block of Prince George Street. Since then, it has evolved to span 10 months of the year as well as several blocks of Prince George and North Boundary streets, filled with a variety of music and artists.
“There’s a lot to see. There’s a lot to buy. There’s a lot to experience,” said Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance. “But it’s also about the quality. I know Shirley has worked really, really hard on that.”
The festival now falls under the umbrella of CultureFix, a local nonprofit organization founded in 2016 by Vermillion’s friend, Steve Rose, in which she serves as director at large.
Rose said Vermillion remains the driving force behind the festival. Since 2012, she’s also booked acts as music director for Cogan’s Deli in New Town, which showcases live music four or five nights a week, depending on whether or not it’s football season.
“The music scene would not be even close to what it is today if it wasn’t for Shirley,” Rose said. “There is no personal gain. She has a pure love for it and she just never stops thinking.”
Vermillion said the festival now attracts between 1,500 and 4,000 people each month, depending on factors such as weather.
“2nd Sundays is really such a popular thing now, not just for locals but for tourists,” Riordan said. “It really is a labor of love for Shirley. I think it will be part of her enduring legacy.”
As 2nd Sundays returns from its winter hibernation, it continues to grow in scope. New artists include the festival’s first English musician, Isaac Tyler. Two Drummers Smokehouse will have a tent set up with food for purchase. Vermillion hopes to continue expanding outdoor dining options in the festival’s future.
The CultureFix team plans to incorporate more street performers alongside existing staples such as the “Silver Man” and jugglers. Vermillion expressed interest in adding theatrical performances to the mix, akin to the Virginia Theatre Machine’s Merchants Square renditions of “A Christmas Carol.”
For the first time, Vermillion is seeking volunteers to help run the show.
With 2nd Sundays and CultureFix, Vermillion hopes to bring the atmosphere of those past Seattle festivals to the people of Williamsburg.
“I just think people crave more and more with less opportunity for people to interact face to face,” she said. “The open-air shopping and festival experience is just very therapeutic.”
Rose credits Vermillion with helping make Williamsburg a cooler place, confident that 2nd Sundays will live on for quite some time.
“We feel like the longevity of it will continue,” he said, adding that consolidating it with CultureFix helps facilitate that.
As Vermillion balances her full-time job, the responsibilities of helping raise four sons and her side projects, she emphasizes efficiency, often opting for texts over phone calls and working through her lunch break rather than being passive.
“When other people are watching three hours of TV at night, I’m working on the festival,” she said. “I might combine a trip to Costco with going to listen to a band somewhere in Hampton. Just try to be efficient.”
For the fans of both 2nd Sundays and the artists Vermillion helps support, that work ethic is paying off.
“She just built it one artist, one craftsperson at a time,” Riordan said. “It just shows when you have that kind of passion and tenacity and drive, you can really build something amazing.”
Want to go?
2nd Sundays returns 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday along Prince George and Boundary streets in Colonial Williamsburg. The event recurs monthly through December. Admission is free.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.