Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Support Your Local Artist. Please.

If you are reading this blog, you probably already know that I am a fibre artist. While I have spent the last several years focussing more on the educational side of my art, I am, at heart, an artist first. I live in a relatively remote community, Fort McMurray, in Northern Alberta, where we are 4.5 hours from anything connected to the fibre arts--materials, classes, guilds.

So imagine my delight when our local recreation facility, MacDonald Island, announced that they would be presenting a fibre arts event in celebration of Alberta Culture Days. The event, titled Silk Caravanna, will involve students in both Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan as well as interested community members in an exhibit of silk paintings. I found this concept brilliant and was fully prepared to dive in and participate.


Yesterday, I read the press release that I linked to above. If you read it, you will see that the General Manager of MacDonald Island is delighted to be bringing a Northwest Territories artist to lead their celebration of Alberta Culture Days. Stop for a moment and let that sink in.

Now, I have no problem at all with the artist in question, Janet Procure. Take a moment to look at her website and blog. She's very good at what she does. I'm sure she's a marvellous human being, because people who work with fibre always are. And I think the project that she is tackling is quite brilliant.


I am a full-time artist and fibre arts instructor who lives and works in Alberta. So are dozens of my friends, some of whom do work similar to Ms. Procure's. And most of us rarely, if ever, work in our own home town or even our own home province. I know dyers, surface designers, felt makers, knitters, weavers, and spinners who are internationally recognized, yet insignificant in Alberta. I know people who have been published in Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits, Handwoven, and Spin-Off or have had work exhibited in Europe who are overlooked in favour of "big names" from outside of Alberta by guilds and galleries in the province. I myself struggle each year with bringing balance to the Fibre Week roster by finding local instructors while others would prefer to see those out-of-town headliners.

I wrote and asked the person at MacDonald Island why she had chosen an out-of-province artist for this project and she was kind enough to respond. She told me that Mac Island had a longstanding working relationship with this artist and that the artist had taken pains to secure a grant from the NWT government to facilitate her travel. She told me that Albertans were being invited to participate, and that they would benefit from the exchange. All of this is fine and good, but it suggests one of two things to me.

The first is that the familiar choice is the best choice. Someone you know, with a proven track record, comes to you with an idea. You know this person does quality work, you know you can work with them, and the idea is great. We all do this. I do it all the time at Fibre Week--there are two or three instructors who come to me every year with something brilliant, and it works. You know it's going to be good, there is no risk. I am assuming, based upon my reply from MacDonald Island that this is the case in this instance and I cannot fault that.

The other way of looking at this is that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Somebody from here is okay, but somebody from somewhere else is better. Because they are from somewhere else. This does not just apply to Albertans, or to fibre artists. This is a thing in every field. My husband currently deals with construction, and the hierarchy under which he works seems to think that an architect from Edmonton is okay, but one from Vancouver is far better. Because they are from somewhere else. The troubling implication in this, of course, it that the homegrown is somehow inferior.

Now, it is not easy to make a living as a fibre artist. Or as an artist of any medium, be it visual, written, or performed. It is especially difficult in hard times, when arts and culture budgets are the first ones axed. Or in a busy province like Alberta, where people are working hard to keep up with a boom economy. It is extremely challenging to work in the arts. And it is almost impossible to succeed locally in the arts, since everyone thinks that the arts and culture scene is better somewhere else. Special guest artists from anywhere else draw a larger crowd than the local talent.

This is why the Alberta government instigated Alberta Culture Days, to "recognize the value of Alberta's arts and cultural communities" in the words used on their website. They go on to say "Alberta Culture Days 2013, September 27 to 29, will continue to showcase the province's arts, multicultural, heritage and nonprofit/voluntary organizations; creative industries and individual artists, while encouraging all Albertans to discover the important contributions of culture to a prosperous, vibrant society."

If you take some time to peruse the Culture Days website (and I encourage you to do so), you will see that the communities participating have invited a wide variety of Alberta artists. Writers, painters, musicians, photographers, sculptors, and fine craftspersons will all be presenting events for public participation. Every single one of them Albertans, or at least, successful artists who got their start in Alberta.

Now, it is really important to present art and artists from outside of Alberta to the folks living here. Exposing the public to the arts in all its complexity and richness makes for a better society. And there are any number of venues that do this, year round. But these three days are for celebrating and encouraging Alberta artists. It just seems to me that MacDonald Island is missing the spirit of the thing by bringing in an outside artist to celebrate the art in our own home province. I am going to participate in events that focus on local talent, both professional and amateur, because they are the warp and weft that make up Alberta's culture.

And for those of you outside of Alberta, take a moment to look around your community. I bet you will find amazing fibre artists, painters, potters, singers, actors, and basket weavers in your own back yard. Take a moment to appreciate what you have right there at home and support your local artists.

Because I am from somewhere else, too. And I can tell you that the grass is no greener here than it is in your own backyard. 

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