BANGOR, Maine — The first Deb Neuman folk festival volunteer T-shirt was made in 2004 with a few snips of the scissors. Each annual Folk Festival on the Bangor waterfront since has been an opportunity for her to get creative. On Friday evening, Neuman’s friend and fellow volunteer Julia Munsey helped her lace up the elaborate 2010 T-shirt for the opening night of the festival.
“I love it because it started this tradition among the volunteers. Now many decorate their shirts,” said Neuman. “My favorite part is when kids come up to me, love the shirt and then volunteer the following year so they can have a shirt.”
Her salmon-colored 2010 T-shirt is threaded with a rainbow of ribbons, which connect in a braid down the back of the shirt. The tail of ribbons threaded with metallic pony beads trails behind her and nearly touches the ground.
“It’s a little bit New Orleans, and it’s five years after Katrina so I’m trying to honor that,” said Neuman.
Brad Ryder, owner of Epic Sports in downtown Bangor, asked Neuman to display all of her past shirts in their store window this year — and to reveal this year’s creation.
“This is like ‘Project Runway’. I don’t have a lot of time,” said Neuman, who started the T-shirt Friday morning and gathered the materials the day before. “I take the day off. Everyone knows it’s T-shirt-making day the Friday before the festival and they don’t call me.”
Neuman’s first year as a volunteer was 2004. On the third sweltering day of the festival, she was about to put on her T-shirt for the day when she paused and set it on the table. With scissors, she cut off both arms, widened the neck and shredded the bottom.
“It wasn’t a design thing. I was just trying to cool the shirt off. So many things are discovered out of necessity,” said Neuman.
That Sunday in 2004, Neuman walked through the festival feeling as if she’d desecrated the volunteer T-shirt. She went directly to American Folk Festival Heather McCarthy, who already had heard rumors of Neuman’s altered uniform. McCarthy gave the volunteer a thumbs-up.
At the end of the festival, she threw the shirt out. She didn’t know it would develop into a tradition.
“The next year, people asked me what I’d do with the shirt, and I realized, ‘Oh, this is a thing now,’” said Neuman.
Neuman says she considers three things while designing the shirt: her volunteer assignment, prior shirt designs, and the original shirt graphics. Her one rule is: she can’t do anything to take away from the graphics and logo on the t-shirt, including any sponsors that may be on the sleeves or back.
In 2006, she drove nighttime golf carts, so she covered her yellow volunteer T-shirt with gems and studs so she would stand out in the dark.
“I feel the pressure to be fashion forward — the volunteer trend-setter,” said Neuman.
This year she is the “art buddy” for the house dance group Urban Artistry, and she thinks her shirt matches their energy and spunk. The artist buddy position is reserved for longtime, highly capable volunteers, and duties include getting performers to their shows on time, acquainting them with Bangor, and just being there to help them.
“None of these are made using a sewing machine. I don’t do that. I don’t sew,” said Neuman. “This is the only clothing project I do all year.”
The festival now gives her two shirts, just in case she messes up on her design, but she hasn’t had to use the backup yet.
On Friday before the kickoff parade, Neuman looked through the Epic Sports window and said, “It’s cool because I look at them, and they just bring back memories of that festival. They’ve never seen a washing machine. They’re art now.”