July 18, 2013

A World of Music, with Small Town Roots

A few weeks into our relocation from a semi-remote rustic lodge on the rocky lake shore of central Vancouver Island to the lowland agricultural community we now call home my mother phoned to see how it was going.

I told her I was enjoying anonymity for the time being after living among a small collection of families who lived and worked at the outdoor education facility. I also told her I was a bit worried about finding a place for myself in this small town where, from what I had seen, it seemed that maintaining perfect lawns and power washing their houses' vinyl siding, driveways and vehicles were the chosen past times of its residents. 'Don't worry', she said. 'The artists are there. They're hiding. They'll reveal themselves sooner or later'. That conversation took place ten years ago.

A few miles north of our town was Harrison Hot Springs, a little hamlet of a resort community built up around a large hotel, my husband's workplace and the reason we had relocated. We thought the village was a magical little spot and visited often that first summer. We had left a lake shore community and it seemed important to visit our new nearby lake as often as possible. The Island was still very fresh in our minds and hearts and we were reluctant to pledge allegiance to our new home. Spending time by the water connected us to our recent past and helped bridge our lives between the two places.

By the fall I had discovered the presence of a little art gallery in a former forest ranger station on the east shore of Harrison Bay, just outside of the village center, and soon after, through a connection of my sister who was heavily involved in the arts community in her town of Prince Rupert, I found myself introduced to, and then elected as the secretary of, the executive of the small district arts council. The former ranger station was also home to the offices of The Harrison Festival of the Arts. The arts council and the Festival Society were separate organizations fulfilling different needs in the community but we shared the facility and the society helped us with running the gallery. Over the next couple of years I got to know the Creative Director of the Festival, Phyllis Stenson and the General Manager, her husband Ed Stenson, as well as their right hand man, Kevin Jones. Within two years of moving to the area I was working for them coordinating the festival Children's Day, a position I held for five years.

Working with Phyllis and Ed was like being a cog in a well oiled machine. Phyllis and I soon discovered we were both detail-oriented people. Phyllis shared her strategies with me on how to cope with the many small, but important aspects of putting on the event, which were, basically, to be super organized, work away steadily, and if things go sideways to repeat her mantra: 'If my family is well, I've got my health and they can't put me in jail, then everything is alright.' Ed, ever steady, always willing to share in the humour of any situation, helpful, encouraging, relaxed and realistic, was the rock that worriers  like me needed to lean against when the going got tough.

From our early days in the area, we attended the Festival, a ten day celebration of world and roots music and art. Soon, we were all volunteering, my husband, our four kids and myself after I had handed the Children's Day reins to someone else. From annual festival to annual festival we began to see a pattern. Not only did every year's festival shine with some unexpected performances such as the gospel-punk band Reverent Peyton from Lousiana, and the eleven piece very loud theatrical folk band Bellowhead from Britain, and some expected excellent ones like uber-guitarist David Lindley and traditional Cape Breton group Beolach or the dance band Rastrillos from Mexico, it also shone with the coming together of locals and non locals alike who shared a love for great music. People from every walk of life attended the free concerts on the beach stage. Enjoying the lake breezes in the shade of the willow trees and the Festival tents, young families, teenagers, high income people, low income people, elderly people and those with special needs sat on lawn chairs or blankets on the grass in front of the stage. And there were also those people who, having not expected to do anything but walk by the spectacle, found themselves spellbound by the sights and sounds and vibrations of energy emanating from the performers on the stage. As the Festival regulars met at the start of each day's concerts they asked each other, "Did you see the concert last night? Wasn't he/she/they amazing?" or even shared critiques: "I didn't care for that performer. Every song sounded the same to me."

The famous willow tree by the beach stage

Every July the Festival spans two full weekends of beach stage and hall performances as well as an all-day art market set up all along the esplanade. The Friday and Saturday night concerts are generally rousing and dance-able giving everyone a chance to cut loose and 'leave it all on the dance floor'. Sunday evening's concerts start earlier in the evening than the other nights' and are generally more thoughtful or stirring, and are generated to put everyone back together before normal, non festival life resumes. This planning of who should perform when and where is no accident. Over the years, Phyllis has fine-tuned her performance schedule, working with performers' agents to keep as many variables in mind as possible, which is an art in itself. Ed and his helpers run the production side of things to keep the Festival running smoothly, troubleshooting along the way and coming up with umpteen creative solutions. Our eldest was one of those hired stage hands last summer and saw first hand how well the event was run. Of course, very little of an event of this magnitude would be possible without hundreds of volunteer hours. It is to Ed and Phyllis' credit that volunteers like us clamor for an opportunity to become involved in the festival.  After all, we are treated so well, given a free pass to all ten of the evening hall shows (which are the only events in the festival that require purchased tickets) and have a party thrown for us at the end in thanks for our services. Well, we do work pretty hard sometimes.

This year's Harrison Festival of the Arts was the 35th annual, and Phyllis and Ed's last. Phyllis and Ed are retiring, and Kevin is moving on to other projects. In keeping with the way things work around the Festival, succession planning was well under way over a year ago, and come September two new people will be at the helm of the event. The festival society board will continue on providing continuity, focus, and support, but the new directors, who are younger and bring different skills and talents with them will undoubtedly put their own stamp on the event we have all come to love and look forward to each year.

There is no doubt that I consider the Harrison Festival to be one of the main reasons I began to feel at home here in this valley. I have met several friends through the festival, found work and made connections that have proven valuable to my sense of community. The Festival has also become a family affair, and I know my children will go out into the world seeking and perhaps even helping to create similar positive and uplifting community events wherever they choose to call home in the future. Long live the Festival! And a big thanks to Phyllis and Ed, and Kevin, who have worked so hard for many, many years to bring a rich and diverse world of music and art to all of us in this quiet corner of the upper Fraser Valley.

As someone out there said, the 'earth' without 'art' is just 'eh'.

The title of this post is taken from the theme of the Harrison Festival: World Music and Art, Small Town Roots.

I have taken a little summer hiatus from blogging and reading blogs but it is apparent that it is now over. See you soon! 


  1. Those ten music filled days fill my soul every year. Harrison becomes imbued with an atmosphere that is unforgettable. Thanks for sharing.

    1. And you are one of the people I look forward to sharing those ten days of soul-filling music with each year, Rosemary! xo Thanks so much for reading this post. I know it is a particularly long one.

  2. that sounds like a really cool time...i performed at a couple festivals this summer...filling in between acts with poetry...was cool...very different...we have several around but none really in our town...would be cool to have something like that....

  3. The festival sounds like a really entertaining event. It is nice that you were able to get involved in such a nice event. And your pictures are really beautiful.
    Glad to see you back at blogging : )

  4. Oh, I love these art and music festivals! I get so bored with white collar suburbia... Thanks for sharing. I hope the newbies don't change things too much!
    And I love your mom's words of encouragement!

    1. Thanks, Abby. I just hope the Festival remains The Festival, plus one :)

  5. I was reading a blog post today in which an author shared her path to the publishing of her book. She had several serious health issues along the way, but persevered. In particular, she listed many things people should do to advance in the world of writing. One thing was to try to get published in a magazine or newspaper, which leads me to the point:

    You would make a fabulous columnist for your local paper! Have you ever done that? So many of your posts vividly describe the events in your area that make me want to be there - everything from camping to festivals.

    1. Yes, I spent a few months trying to do just that, earlier this year. I sent out queries to all the regional and local papers. Those I heard back from said they had no budget to hire freelance writers, and one invited me to submit 550 word columns which they would happily publish but could not pay for. So far I have sent them one, which they published, and plan to send further ones when I can. 550 words is a short-ish post for me so I had to edit my column a lot - a good exercise. The local paper has invited me to write columns too, but cannot pay me. I write articles for the arts council every once in a while, and will submit them an occasional column if I think it is relevant to their publication. It is worth doing, for the reasons you outline, Anita, but it is a bit hard to think of doing it for free all the time. My sister, a newspaper reporter, was the first to suggest I become a columnist, but even she thinks I should be able to make a little money at it! A piece I submitted to a Vancouver radio program was read on the air. I didn't know it, but my friend from across the province phoned me and said, "I just heard your story on CBC radio!" That was exciting. There are a few other avenues I am going to try, but in the meantime, I'll just plug away.
      Thanks for your encouraging words :)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!