I am Virginia Gillespie. Artistic Director VG PlayRoom and the Word Studio located above Alexandra Hall. We received Surrey Cultural Grant for a Word-Arts project through partnering with Alex House. This includes a collaboration with Fauzia and Surrey Muse to host a reading series Word-Arts Live! Flyers are on the table. But also I’ve been involved in meetings about the Artist for A Change grant project.
I’m going to get personal and talk about my experience in the arts, give examples of what inspires me and a context for why I think these kinds of projects are important right here, right now.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I was raised in a home full of artful living. It was a place where all kinds of people were welcome. We celebrated holidays by decorating and feasting. We had a player piano and it was a hang out for me, my brother and our friends. My father loved to cook and dance. My mother trained in opera and was involved in music, theatre and planning artistic social events.
My father bought me my first guitar in Mexico when I was 13 and I used to lie in bed at night strumming myself to sleep, often waking with my guitar next to me.
We were a white middle class family. Privileged yes, by the ethnic and social status that was my reality as a child. In hindsight, I think the real privilege from my upbringing is that Frank and I were encouraged to create, think critically, have opinions and question the world around us. And it all started in the home.
But was it the perfect American dream? The 60’s came crashing in with a vengeance, Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement, assassinations, nuclear threats, and the divorce of my parents that split up my family. That foundation of artful living, observing, questioning was put to a test.
Words – especially words and music dominated the youth culture of the time. Protests, challenging authority, seeking truth and sanity in a country that was experiencing a convulsion of sorts that toppled all of the pillars of society. I started writing and singing songs. Art was the way through.
Discouraged at 20, I dropped out of university and went to Europe. I took a backpack and my guitar. Singing and playing my guitar opened doors and relationships, especially in England – singing in Irish pubs, acting in plays and even touring in a rock musical.
I’ve moved a lot in my life. I gravitate to people and places where arts are a natural part of life. Most of my friends are either artists or fans. I want more of what has inspired me in my travels to be closer to home.
So here are examples of places that inspire me:
The Tucson Poetry Centre – began in the 1940’s by writer philanthropist Ruth Stephen who loved poetry. Each winter she travelled by train from cold Chicago to Tucson. In her adobe casita she collected poetry books and soon she also collected poets into a social milieu that included Robert Frost. She bequeathed her property to become what is now the Poetry Centre; an architectural wonder with a library, writer in residence quarters, performance hall, audio collection of guest poets, programming, meditative gardens, public art. It started with one woman’s vision.
Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, Northern Ireland. A restored stone school house located on the wall partition overlooking the Bogside, scene of the Troubles where two generations ago armed soldiers stood guard. The Irish love words. And they are working on reconciliation through art. Not only through the people’s gallery of powerful Bogside murals portraying the Troubles, but this verbal arts centre with a library, recording studio, programs for children and literacy and even a debate chamber. Tired of war and violence they have a vision where words and art open up dialogue and new relationships.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Wells BC up in the Cariboo near Barkerville. First a gold mine town in the early 1900’s. Then almost a ghost town. Hippies moved there in the 60’s followed by artists who built an art colony. Now a community of 217 year round residents with many more during the summer. Island Mountain Arts holds a big festival in the summer, a Harp festival, artist in residence programs. The Sunset Theatre specializes in new Canadian Play development and has strong connections with the Indigenous artists and storytellers. Dreamers and doers – all beginning with vision.
We met painter Claire Kujundzik who’s father originally from Yugoslavia via Scotland came to BC and was asked to start the Kootenay School of Arts. Their family lifestyle was art. As immigrants they developed community through arts. They didn’t want to work in isolation as their natural tendency and strength was to collaborate. Like many BC artist pioneers and trailblazers from 1950 through the 70’s, they were part a movement where art, politics, lifestyle, economics were intertwined. (Camp A shares that history.) Art as lifestyle is a tough choice. Their collective vision often challenged concepts and social mores, and served to define, re-shape and animate society.
Claire’s father had a colleague, George Riga, who penned a Contemporary Okanagan Artists Manifesto mid 60s that aspired to work collectively with compatible artists, not only to increase their professionalism but also to enhance the rural communities. Central to this is to establish place.
“Art must have an arena where the artist and observer meet. Art must be tempered by truth as people experience it.” He mentioned activities and said …”and because of this the young poet will find an audience to read his work, the maker of songs can sing, students will learn from some of the best artists on this continent. The layman will have a forum to voice his thoughts and criticism, knowing they will be considered and applied by a working arts community. I urge everyone to support these artists and bring their ideas to full flower. Canada needs arts colonies wherever people function.”
I live up the hill with Steve in a home we named Bardsroost. It is an artistic space. I rent a space above Alexandra Hall, the Word Studio focussing on word arts, devising, multidisciplinary performance and play writing. Many people visit the Word Studio and express a longing for a vital arts hub right here: for events that broaden perspectives, for celebration, socializing and most importantly, to nurture a feeling of belonging to an artful, creative community relevant to the issues and topics of the time.
For this to happen it takes vision and commitment and consistency. And there must be spaces for artists to discover through exploring. Art is messy. It’s an organic rather than liner process that needs room to grow through playing with ideas and materials. And bouncing off ideas with other artists.
When I first visited Camp A 20 years ago, I saw it as an arts colony, full of making and experimenting and performing and hanging out. An incubator with places to show and tell. That is what I envisioned.
There’s an amazing opportunity through grants such as Art for A Change which has the potential to draw together diverse artists and projects on significant social and environmental issues. And also the Word-Arts Project. Both can infuse Alex House and the larger community to discover through the arts much needed vehicles of transformation.