Opinion: A Christmas letter to the artists of Burnaby

Dear artists of Burnaby:

It’s getting harder and harder, it seems, to cling to the spirit of Christmas.

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In a world that seems increasingly full of chaos, conflict and rising anger, how can anyone who’s paying attention to the state of the planet profess to believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity?

Joy? Love? Selflessness? They all seem so absent from the public discourse as to be laughably old-fashioned notions. And giving? What’s the point of giving when the planet itself is not-so-slowly being consumed by greed and wanton thoughtlessness?

That’s where I was at last week, I admit – allowing myself to wallow, more than a little, in the bleak realization of all that is wrong with the world at this moment. It’s impossible to stand on the precipice of a new decade and not wonder where on earth we’ll be 10 years from now.

But then I started browsing back issues of the papers from the past year, getting ready to write my year-end salute to the city’s arts scene. And I found myself, as I so often do, succumbing to optimism, as story after story emerged to remind me just how many of you were out there in our community, shining your light of hope into the darkness that was 2019.

This year, I’m reaching out to salute 10 of those groups of people.



1. THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SAVING THE PLANET.

Ask anyone what the number 1 issue facing the world is, and you’ll likely hear the same answer over and over again: the climate crisis. So this salute goes out to the group of artists behind ReVision: the Art of Recycling, who brought their show focusing on recycling and art to the Deer Lake Gallery in the fall – along with workshops to give the rest of us ideas about how to create our own upcycled art.

For taking a message of doom and turning it into a positive, constructive, artistic conversation, the very greatest of thanks.

 

 

2. THE PEOPLE WHO SING.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that my own personal cure for just about everything is singing.

Amabilis Singers, the 65-voice community choir with whom I’ve been singing for the past dozen years, is led by the incomparable Ramona Luengen and pianist Ingrid Verseveldt, two phenomenally talented Burnaby women who continually inspire and raise us to new musical heights. To them, and to my fellow choristers, I am indebted for the weekly reminder that choral singing – where a group of “ordinary” singers can come together and make extraordinary music - is an expression of all that is right and good in the world.

Burnaby was full of that choral expression this past year, with concerts by Amabilis, the Gentlemen of Fortune, the Maple Leaf Singers and a number of guest appearances by top Vancouver choirs, including Vancouver Cantata Singers and musica intima – not to mention all of those church and school choirs that give people of all ages and vocal abilities a chance to experience the joy of singing together.

As long as we have a world where people stand shoulder to shoulder to raise their voices in harmony, we have a world where there will always be hope in the darkness.

 

3. THE PEOPLE WHO LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.

Ever since it went unexpectedly viral during its first incarnation in 2016, the Burnaby Arts Council’s Luminescence show has been a highlight of the Vancouver-area arts calendar. This past year was no different, as Luminescence IV drew crowds to experience a host of two-and three-dimensional art celebrating light, all timed to coincide with the spring equinox – complete with a fire-breathing dragon (by artist Ron Simmer) on the front lawn of Deer Lake Gallery.

For this annual extravaganza that has put Burnaby on the artistic map and that continues to shine light on the winter darkness, I offer up my gratitude to the arts council, to its executive director Teena Martin, to the artists who graciously gave me their time to talk about their work – Grant Withers, Ron Simmer, Kathryn Wadel and Mark Johnston – and to all the artists involved.

 

4. THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW ART IS FOR EVERYONE.

Deer Lake Summer Arts Festival
The Deer Lake Summer Arts Festival, which includes the popular Park's Edge Paint Off, is one of Burnaby's many "art is for everyone" events that make culture accessible to folks of all ages and backgrounds. - Jennifer Gauthier, NOW files

Far too often, it seems, people still associate the words “arts and culture” with a particular subset of society. So this holiday season I need to thank those who continue their efforts to make art accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. There’s the Burnaby Art Gallery, which offers a host of programming for everyone from kids to seniors, and which this year offered a BAG on a Bike program that literally brought art to the people. Then there are the special events - like the City of Burnaby’s Chalk Art Festival, which turns the pavement outside Bonsor Recreation Complex into one giant outdoor gallery; the Burnaby Arts Council’s Deer Lake Summer Arts Festival, which offers family-friendly weekend fun; and the inaugural Art Crawl Burnaby Heights, which allowed people to stroll Hastings Street and check out work by local artists.

And don’t forget Align Entertainment, bringing its top-notch, family-friendly musicals to the Michael J. Fox Theatre stage and keeping tickets affordable for folks with kids.

Add to that the extensive programming at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and the ongoing series of workshops and presentations by Deer Lake Gallery, and you have a city that constantly works to make arts accessible to and exciting for everyone. Thank you all.

 

5. THE PEOPLE WHO PUSH FOR EQUALITY.

Artists have long been at the forefront of social change, pushing the boundaries of societal views and helping to make space for the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed.

This year, I send a special salute to the Burnaby Art Gallery for its efforts to increase the visibility of women in the world of fine arts. In March, as it has in past years, the gallery hosted an Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, part of a worldwide movement to help improve coverage of gender, feminism and art-related subjects on Wikipedia. In the summer, the gallery held the exhibition Women’s Work: New Acquisitions, showcasing the work that it has done since 2013 to enhance its collection of works created by women artists.

For recognizing the inequalities that exist in the world of art, for speaking out and for taking action, I thank Ellen van Eijnsbergen, Jennifer Cane and the entire gallery team.

 

6. THE PEOPLE WHO HONOUR INDIGENOUS STORIES AND EXPERIENCES.

In a society where the words “truth and reconciliation” are often spoken but not always understood, it’s important to recognize those who are working to honour Indigenous art and to ensure Indigenous voices are heard.

The Burnaby Arts Council has long led the charge, making space at Deer Lake Gallery for Indigenous programming with a series of conversations led by artist Brandon Gabriel (Kwelexwecten), who also led a drum-making workshop in the fall. In the summer, the gallery also featured Coast Salish art by Kelly Cannell and a weaving demonstration by Kwantlen elder Hazel Gludo.

A special thank-you this year goes out to Diana Hellson (a.k.a. Mamarudegyal), an Indigenous hip hopper of mixed Siksika, West Indian and Celtic heritage, who shared her powerful story in February.

For those making space for Indigenous art, and most especially to those artists who honour the non-Indigenous among us by inviting us to experience your work, all the blessings of the holiday season.

 

 

7. THE PEOPLE WHO NURTURE THE NEXT GENERATION. 

To slightly alter a quote from music educator-composer Cheryl Lavender, the fact that children can make beautiful art is less significant than the fact that art can make beautiful children.

From fine arts classes to music and dance lessons, not a day goes by without the next generation of Burnaby artists being exposed to the world of fine and performing arts. There are so many teachers, groups and institutions in Burnaby nurturing a love of arts in the next generation that I could never begin to name them all.

But I’ll take this opportunity to salute the Burnaby Art Gallery for its ongoing Arts Alive exhibitions – which, every year, showcase the work of students from Burnaby schools. This year’s exhibition, on the theme of Math & Art, included the work of elementary school students from kindergarten on up.

That five-year-old who gets a chance to exhibit her work in a gallery may or may not become a professional artist in some future life. But she will learn that her vision of the world matters. Through the act of creating art, she will learn to think differently, to see differently, to understand the world around her in a more profound way. Arts education helps us to create better citizens, and I thank all of you who are out there making that happen for our city – and for our world.

 

8. THE PEOPLE WHO REMIND US THAT FAMILY MATTERS.

In a world where parenting often seems like one of the least glamorous jobs around, it’s always refreshing to talk to those who are managing to navigate the world of arts and entertainment while not downplaying their role as “Mom” or “Dad.”

I had the pleasure this year of talking to parents such as Rosemary Siemens and Eli Bennett, the rising music duo of SaxAndViolin, who are bringing their toddler, Theodore, along on all their international adventures; and none other than Vancouver’s indie-folk star Dan Mangan, who took time out to chat in advance of his appearance at the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival about how parenthood has changed his perspective on the music industry.

For your grace, charm and willingness to share your own family stories, I offer up my thanks (and an extra holiday cookie to make up for the one your kid just stole off your plate).

 

9. THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE THEIR FAITH.

In a world that skews toward the secular, where the very idea of religion is often looked at askance, it takes a certain courage of your convictions to chart a public path as a person of faith.

This year, I had the pleasure to meet Stephanie Standerwick, the Burnaby-based gospel singer who earned an International Gospel Music Award this fall, and who took the time out to talk about her faith journey and how it’s intertwined with her music career. Not long afterwards, I also met violinist Rosemary Siemens, whose Mennonite roots and deep love of hymns continue to power her career in music.

Both women exemplified the kind of grace, love and compassion that the world can use more of. To them, and to all the artists out there who draw inspiration from their own faith and spiritual journeys, I wish all the blessings of the holiday season.

 

10. THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE MY JOB EASIER.

From the profound to the somewhat more mundane, I would also be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to pay my thanks to all of those promoters and publicists out there who help me to do my job.

I’m talking about organizations like the Burnaby Arts Council, Burnaby Art Gallery and Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, who diligently send emails and press releases letting me know about the myriad artistic happenings on the Burnaby arts scene. And I’m also talking about all the amazing publicists out there who always manage to track down local angles for me: Marnie Wilson, Bonnie Allan, the team at Murray Paterson Marketing Group, and so many more. For all your work in sending emails (and more emails, and more emails), in providing photos, in arranging interviews and in every way helping to make sure that I can spread the word about the never-ending array of arts and entertainment offerings in our city, my thanks.

I’ve put a word in with Santa, and you’re all most definitely on the nice list.

 

To all of the people mentioned above, and to each and every one of you who allowed me into your life this past year so that I could tell your stories, I offer my thanks.

However dark the world looks, however bleak the headlines seem, know this: the work you are doing matters. The more we teeter on the edge of the despair, the more we need the hope that artists bring. We need you all to call us together as humans; to make us laugh and allow us to cry, to help us believe in magic, to challenge us to become better people. We need you to continue to push for change, to challenge stereotypes and prejudice, to force us to ask ourselves questions we may not want to face so that in the very act of asking we may start to build a better world. Above all, we need you to help us find ourselves; to delve into the deepest parts of what makes us human and to find a path back to love and compassion when we begin to lose our way.

Because, despite it all, I still believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity. Joy, love, selflessness and giving will never go out of style as long as there are artists in the world.

So carry on. Make your music and dream your dreams, and invite us along for the ride. Together we will forge a better future for our planet – and we’ll do it with a dance in our heart, and a song in our soul.

 

Peace and blessings of the holiday season,

Julie

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