She's queen of the Christmas castle

Theresa Bonvegna, her family and friends are creating a palace for Festival of Trees

November 16, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,

The Bonvegna family made a tradition of attending the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Festival of Trees almost since the event began in 1990. Now, led by Theresa Bonvegna, owner of an art school in downtown Bel Air, family members are festival exhibitors.

Bonvegna, the director of the Bel Air School of Art, has pulled family, friends and a student, well-versed in dragon lore, into creating this year's exhibit, dubbed "Knights Before Christmas." Since July, they have been building on their idea for a castle that would stand between two 7 1/2-foot tall pines. The trees would constitute the castle's turrets.

They are working on deadline now, still painting and decorating the castle walls, built of corrugated plastic that "is light and virtually indestructible," she said. They still plan to add stonework to the exterior. The group is also creating all the trees' ornaments, which are mostly miniature medieval figures.

Much of the exhibit is spread out in several homes and at the art school. It all must come together this week.

"It will all be fun until about 3 a.m. the day before we have to put it up," she said.

They have to move their castle centerpiece, complete with stained-glass windows, moat, drawbridge and a dragon made of clay, to festival headquarters at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium within days. Then they will spend most of next weekend setting up, trimming and lighting their third festival exhibit since 2005.

"We are a little concerned about transportation, given the size," she said. "Once we get it all there, we can assemble it there. It will take seven of us all day."

In all, their exhibit will be about 15 feet wide and filled with handmade gnomes, elves, wizards and at least 35 fairies, most modeled out of clay and some as yet unbaked, she said. Knights, sleeping in their armor, will be visible from the castle windows. A moat monster, sewn and stuffed with fabric, will pop up in the murky waters but will not menace.

"There are no bad dragons or monsters," Bonvegna said. "This is a happy castle, where the dragon pulls Santa's sleigh."

The tiny figures will trim the tree along with miniature wreaths, berries, holly and globes filled with flowers. Festival organizers will set the price.

"We basically rewrote ["A Visit from St. Nicholas"] with a medieval touch," she said. "We are very much a work in progress."

Bonvegna said this year's entry is the most elaborate yet and the most "Christmas-sy." She became so attached to their 2005 exhibit that her husband ended up buying it as a Christmas present for her.

"I remember him saying that he had paid to decorate it, worked hours on it and then had to buy it back," she said. "We still have it."

Before they even set up their 2006 version - two towering trees tied together with fishing wire and decorated in a year-without-Santa theme - husband Michael Mathis made her promise it would be sold outside the family.

"Somebody else did buy them," she said. "But I was a little sad to see them go."

The couple has a new home in Essex to decorate for the holidays, but the Knights exhibit might just be a bit oversized for the living room, she said.

Two previous entries have won prizes with the 2006 double-tree taking a first-place in its division. But the cause is her motivation.

"I always did a lot of volunteer work when I was in college," she said. "With the school and everybody's jobs, we can't volunteer so much any more. This is a way to do community service within the parameters of time we all have."

She has also interested other groups in the festival, including Small Paws, a 4-H Club that meets in Fallston.

"Parents and students see bits and pieces of the exhibit," she said. "They get interested and want to try one on their own."

Kim Bachmann, parent adviser to the 4-H group, said its members have made ornaments all year, based on a Four Seasons of Blessings theme. They have several hundred, way more than they will need to trim their tree at the festival.

"We are a tiny club doing something great," she said. "This is a great way for kids to help other kids."

The three-day festival, with three cavernous rooms of exhibits and activities, is a great alternative to the frenzied post Thanksgiving shopping, Bonvegna said.

"Now we all go and make a day of it," she said. "We start thinking about next year's exhibit right then and there."

The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 28 and 29 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 30. All proceeds benefit Kennedy Krieger Institute. Information: 443-923-7300 or

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