Art and culture week is in April, and I have been thinking about the subject a lot lately.
I was the entertainment editor of The Weal newspaper in Calgary when I was in journalism school, and so I love writing arts and culture stories.
I wanted to do something to cover arts and culture in the Fort, but I was having trouble connecting with it.
Now, it might be because I’m new, or because I don’t yet live full time in the Fort, but I wasn’t even sure what kind of arts and culture was going on in Fort St. James.
I was beginning to suspect it was similar to what I experienced with some of the businesses in town without signs, they just think everyone knows where things are, because that’s where it’s always been, and new people like me drive around in circles confused.
I sometimes suspect it is a joke the locals like to play on newcomers, like when they give you directions somewhere but use the names of old businesses that no longer exist as landmarks: “You know, old Movie Gallery.”
Sorry folks, I don’t know.
The arts and culture scene of the town seems similarly difficult to pinpoint.
Since I started working in the Fort in November, there has been an art show in the library, the craftwork and culture at Nak’albun’s Heritage Days and a concert at the high school that I have known about, but other than that, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence.
But it must be there. Wherever people live, wherever there are humans, there is art. You can see it throughout history and in faded paint on the rocks along Stuart Lake.
Art inspires us and lifts us up, helps us examine things with a new perspective, or see someone else’s perspective which you otherwise might never have imagined.
Not to mention art offers us distraction from long winters and a respite from reality television, my nemesis (sorry Jersey Shore fans).
I grew up in a house where my mother was a member of the Potter’s Guild and was on the local arts council for years, it was a part of life and I assumed that was normal.
Now, I’m not so sure.
With the stories I’m working on to do with art and culture, I met two women who are at the very heart of arts and culture in Fort St. James, and that heart is aching.
One of these women, Rosemarie Allan, is in her 70s and still president of the Music Makers Society, which puts on local theatre productions.
As someone who has dedicated decades to theatre in Fort St. James, I think she has given more than her share towards promoting the arts in the Fort. But while she’s ready to step down as president and retire to allow for fresh ideas and energy, no one seems willing to take up the cause.
People are enthusiastic about watching theatrical performances, but Allan has been having an increasingly difficult time getting people to take part in the actual production.
The theatre is teetering, I would say, on the brink of collapse. The current production, of which Allan is not a part, has barely enough cast members (the director selected the play based on the least number of cast required) and no production crew. So the cast must do all the aspects of the production as well: advertising; set decorating; costuming.
It’s a far cry from the early years of the Music Makers, when Allan said they had productions with 20 to 25 people involved, and full musicals, including Phantom of the Opera and South Pacific.
The cast members I spoke to during rehearsal last week were all very positive about how much they enjoyed doing the production and meeting new people, but they seemed a little bit saddened by the lack of participation, or perhaps they were just a bit tired from having to do absolutely everything.
I also spoke to Monica Grill, president of the Arts Council, who has been involved in arts in the Fort for more years than most (25).
Grill is having similar problems recruiting people to be on the Arts Council, and this year, the concert series didn’t run for the first year in a long time, simply because they don’t have the people to help organize and do the behind the scenes planning that needs to be done before live music can happen.
The Cottonwood Music Festival is even on the edge of the scrap heap, if no one is willing to form a new committee and take over it’s organization, the event, which from what I have heard brings a lot of people to the community, will simply disappear.
While it is perhaps a big commitment for people in today’s busy society to ask them to give time to these productions, the spaces and events which gather people together are -in my mind- critical for a community.
These are the things that bind us together, and create a sense of identity in our place.
While there is a lot of great things to do in Fort St. James, with the mountains and the lakes, the outdoor activities often tend to be more independent or smaller group activities.
The gatherings of a community for arts events help us all to appreciate our commonalities, and rediscover our inner artist.
I hope the tough times of these arts organizations will become a thing of the past as new creative energy comes forward to help carry the torch for future generations of art lovers.