Devon Muhlert: The View from the Land of the Big Red Apple
Designating their new home in the spacious, fertile North Okanagan valley 'The Land of the Big Red Apple', the colonists' 1904 brand predated New York's by 16 years. It didn't take into account an aboriginal Splats'in heritage. Meaning prairie by the river, Splats'in was anglicized to Spallumcheen. In the last decade, Big Apple artists have worked in our apple-dappled landscapes, and local artists have returned the compliment.
Learning how to manipulate the 15 ft. tall puppet at Enderby's Community Play, 'Not the Way I Heard It'.
Enderby and Kalamalka
Two significant arts events book-end the last ten years in the North Okanagan. First was Enderby's massive community play, Not the Way I Heard It, which involved about 6% of the then 7000 population. Crowning the century in 1999 with two weeks of outdoor performances, bonds of friendship were cemented through art.
This year's book-end celebrates 20 years of literary achievement through Vernon's Kalamalka Press, including the February launch of Virginia Dansereau's short story collection, Undertow. Founded by a writers' collective which included John Lent, Kalamalka Press has 15 books in its catalog. The most recent, Abundance, records conversations between Lent and acclaimed poet Robert Kroetsch, the most recent Mackie House writer-in-residence. Bachelor Paddy Mackie had bequeathed his home as an arts legacy, and his cat Persephone still checks out its parade of writers-in-residence.
Now Dean of Okanagan College, Lent is the grand old man of letters for many students. Not that he's particularly old, and he certainly gets around. Singer in a jazz trio, he also has eight books to his personal credit. Still, in a refrain familiar to small-town folks, he's heard from local misanthropes, "You can't be any good if you're still living in Vernon!" Lent simply laughs. "The arts scene here has landed on its feet," he says. "There's a real confidence now. I'm in a unique position to see that, from the jazz trio angle as well as from a writer's and teacher's perspective. I think the strength lies in having built up partnerships, like the ones with Mackie House, Ryga House and the writing series at Gallery Vertigo."
John Lent holds books written by the Okanagan College literary instructors
Gallery Vertigo is led by one of Lent's students, Judith Jurica. Co-founder and now gallery director, Jurica and five colleagues had planned to operate their own gallery. She laughs ruefully at their former innocence. "We had no idea that six painters can't produce the sheer volume needed for a gallery. Or the diversity." Morphing into the North Okanagan Arts Alternative, they attracted about100 members, celebrating their fifth year in 2007.
Jurica also has ties to Julie Oakes, formerly a local painter who established Headbones Gallery in Vernon. Then, following the pull to the Big Apple, Oakes attended art school and enjoyed its lively arts scene, but found that Toronto afforded a better compromise between big and small. In Toronto she resurrected Headbones, where she represents Jurica and some other NOAA members.
Judith Jurica, Director of Gallery Vertigo
The Circles of Influence
There seems to be no end to notable Lent alumni. Shane Koyczan has become an international slam poet who keeps a standing date with Okanagan College each Valentine's Day. Part poet, part comedian, he captures hearts with his intense, spellbinding performance art, packing them in despite minimal advertising.
Pointing out to Lent that many working artists today are former students, he chuckles modestly. "If you just get old enough ..."
One artist who leaves bright-coloured ripples in her wake is Michelle Loughery. Painting a downtown Vernon mural project, she discovered a flow between her work and rapport with street youth who stopped to chat. So she found funding and put them to work. She's repeated this maneuvre for cities from Merritt to Palm Springs, and completed a 9/11 memorial in New York City.
The musical waves are just as intense. One Vernon musician, Chris Madsen, is currently navigating an interesting tributary. His Body & Soul exhibition in April addresses alternative healing.
Previously a successful session musician from Vancouver, he coauthored Yamaha music methods. He developed his own educational style, simplifying structure and writing over 15 method-books. His on-line students across Canda get accredited courses through the Music Educator's Institute. He started the Chris Madsen Music School and has since passed it on to his daughter. He has released a CD, Seagull in Flight, which picked up the 2007 Best Instrumental Artist or Group award from the Okangan Music Awards.
Artistic groundwork was also laid by earlier citizens, most notably by Allan Brooks, a man who was a naturalist almost from birth under fatherly tutelage. Aged four, a formal portrait shows him clutching a dead bird. At 19, meticulous notes went into a leather-bound notebook with copiously hand-labelled illustrations of coloured birds, which he called his field guide. His art graced National Geographic, Taverner's Birds of Western Canada, Audubon Societies, many U.S. publications, and even school scribblers.
The norm then was to bag one's quarry by shooting it, which seems strange today. He was even caught once by his wife, an avid gardener, trying to 'collect' a hummingbird from those visiting her blooms. Yet Brooks credited the realism in his sketches to studying the creatures at leisure before their colours faded.
Brooks' cabin sat on the northern edge of Okanagan Lake, now Kin Beach. He met his wife in the military, and built her and his son a winter home in Comox. Sidney Williams was a Comox friend and neighbour whom Brooks gifted with the exquisite field guide. The Williams offspring kept it until recently purchased by Vernon & District Museum for $25,000. Museum staff knew of American investors who would have snatched it up in a warbler's whistle at twice the price. Ineligible for federal heritage funding because it wasn't offered on the open market, that technicality still rankles. Nevertheless, fundraising continues while the field guide captures pride of place in a dedicated showcase alongside Brooks' field glasses. A renovated gallery contains Brooks' paintings owned by the museum as well as some owned by the Allan Brooks Nature Centre, established in a former government facility with the best views in Vernon.
Brooks' realism has also been credited by Robert Bateman for his own inspiration. As a teen, Bateman attended meetings of a young naturalists' club which met at the Royal Ontario Museum. Waiting for his ride home, he sketched many of the Brooks drawings surrounding him. To support the Centre, Bateman has donated some of his own works for auction.
Other ongoing influences include the O'Keefe Ranch, technically also in the Splats'in Valley. It introduced innovative programming like Cowboy Poetry festivals, which celebrated the creations of cowboys around the evening campfire.
Chris Madsen in his Zen room studio.
Curator Ron Candy and advocate Walt Duncan admire Allan Brooks' 1888 field guide recently purchased for $25,000 by Greater Vernon Museum & Archives
Caravan Farm Theatre
Another home for evolving artists was and is
the Caravan Farm Theatre, celebrating its 30th
anniversary this year. The company had begun the long
trek from Vancouver by hoof and covered wagon, end
Thespian functions dovetail neatly with survivalist themes. One memorable day, newly arrived city actors were pressed into urgent haying under skies threatening rain. Caravan has drawn global talent including New York composer Ralph Denzer. Their new venture involves inviting independent theatre companies into the Theatre Artists' Residency Program, offering respite from cities while developing and workshopping new scripts.
Caravan alumni are everywhere too, including Enderby's Cathy Stubington and her husband, former chief farmer and ferrier Doug Saba. Internationally known for puppeteering and oversized puppets, Stubington initiated Enderby's community play.
Her current theatre, Runaway Moon Theatre, combines puppets, theatre, and community involvement. She is still invited away to speak on the community play experience. Saba produces fresh produce boxes by subscription. Together they personify the cross-over between nourishing community health via good food and commmunity expression.
Caravan's publicity man at one time was Ken Smedley, and he hasn't stopped promoting, now developing song circles and competitions. He established and is director of Summerland's George Ryga House, which links back to Okanagan College's literary world.
New York composer and musician Ralph Denzer works at Caravan Farm Theatre in the early days.
Enderby lay historian Bob Cowan and director James Fagan Tait researched historical background at Enderby & District Museumfor "Not the Way I Heard It".
Painter Heidi Thompson sought out Sveva Caetani on the strength of one high school lecture. "The single most memorable event of my whole school life," Thompson marvels. "This tall, odd-looking woman, had great presence. She was so inspiring, she mesmerized us." Thompson had flirted with European travel plans, but Caetani's talk catalysed them. "She emphasized getting out of Vernon to experience art that Italy and other countries could offer."
Back in Vernon nine years later with a Swiss photography diploma under her belt and a camera slung around her neck, local gossip recalled a hermit, also a painter. "I was intrigued. I went over to see her, a bit apprehensive because people said she didn't like the public on her grounds. I rang and she answered from the balcony, leaning down from her 6' 2" height, shouting "What do you want, child?" 26-year-old Thompson felt intimidated. "Just to see your paintings." "Not a good time," said Caetani, then noticed the camera. "Are you a photographer?" "Yes." "Then you must come in." Caetani wanted the occasions she hosted recorded.
Generous and gracious in her old-world charm, Caetani attracted
a large following and took to calling Thompson 'her photographer'.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship, Thompson went on to commit to
celluloid the 56 paintings from
Recapitulation. With Caetani's blessing and participation, Thompson
prepared a lavish art book by that name. A labour of love, Thompson
pored over proofs to keep printed colours true and Caetani paired her
paintings with poetic reflections. A work of art
in itself, Caetani was destined never to see the book, dying months before it rolled off the press.
Caetani House, in contrast to its former compulsive privacy, was left to the City of Vernon for use by the Vernon Public Art Gallery. An annual fundraiser is the wildly popular Midsummer's Eve of the Arts. Rumours of a House was an inaugural play that recapped Caetani's life and welcomed the public into her space.
Jim Elderton, a British film-maker who settled in Armstrong, produced an acclaimed documentary, Sveva Caetani: Prisoner of Vernon. Elderton recently took home an Okanagan Arts Award for his film-making skills.
Other auspicious anniversaries include the Grindrod Players, celebrating their 40th year. Outlying areas like Kingfisher and Mabel Lake are also fruitful artistic ground that have hosted many including W.O. Mitchell who once kept a cabin there, and a concentration of the artists is found in Cherryville.
Sveva Caetani. Photograph by Heidi Thompson.
The circles of influence continue to expand in the land of the big red apple. Just as early historical events brought in hopefuls who panned for gold, and later ones brought in orchardists who planned for Jona-golds, new brands and varieties are generated from the old. Similarly, former influences keep nourishing contemporary arts, helping artists to go for the gold standard.
The Enderby Community Play
In the midst of massive change, we celebrate natural cycles to remind ourselves that equilibrium exists.
The cycle of the salmon run was one theme of
"Not the Way I Heard It". Both the Splats'in people and the new
settlers depended on it, and the play wove together
shtuptakwala, sacred creation stories of the Splats'in, with colourful
characters from Enderby's past. Splats'in had
Cathy Stubington, the power-house who initiated the play, can generate multitudes of ideas, but she chooses her words with care. She hesitates over the question of whether the play accomplished cultural healing. "I don't use that word [healing] myself, because I don't see a people as 'ailing'." Stubington sees her role as "an artist cultural worker with community-based arts." Her vision was to bring people together who might otherwise have remained disconnected, and that included young and old.
Splats'in historian and co-director Rosalind Williams says that her original vision was to promote understanding of Splats'in history, and believes some success was achieved. "Those that share common interests, whether that be around sports, religion, economic development, employment, education, child care or politics seem to work together well."
Shortly after the play, cultural exchanges took place, like friendship teas for women that alternated from town to reserve. A decade later, friendships flourish.
An amalgam of arts professionals and volunteers, the play drew internationally known director James Fagan Tait. With his sensitive approach to people and his attention to detail, Tait anchored the production, greatly contributing to its huge success.
Artistic director Stubington, Tait and Williams collaborated on a script that
sparkled, well-balanced with humour and heart. Beyond that it was a true
community effort, including a local Grade 12 English class working on historical research
to get the details right. Businesses contributed
240 roles were covered by 163 people, some from neighbouring areas. Tait expressed delight early on. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was absolutely dumbfounded at the talent here!" Ultimately, 400 people of common vision pulled it off.
Williams, too, was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm and commitment from outset to finish. The arts, she notes today, build good bridges.
Many newsprint features of the day commented on how connected the cast seemed, floating an easy companionship that enveloped audiences.
Weaving powerful shtuptakwala with secular history was brilliantly managed. Adding international Maori consultant Henrietta Maxwell's song, meaning 'thank-you for sharing your culture' was a bonus. At a final rehearsal, her song faded into a mystic silence and all eyes were drawn skyward.
Eagles soared overhead as if cued. In one expansive moment, cultures joined, unified in spirit and in awe.
Devon Muhlert is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared internationally. Also a song-writer and poet, she is polishinga novel and writes a weekly column.