Art is a tonic for the community soul

Dufferin Arts Council has been spiking the brew for fifteen years!

March 22, 2007 | | Back Issues

Cave paintings by our Cro-Magnon ancestors and a recently discovered Neanderthal flute confirm that the impulse to create art is one of our most deeply rooted human traits.

And that genetic urge to express ourselves is flourishing in the hills.

From Terra Cotta to Terra Nova, our community vibrates with the work of painters, potters, writers, weavers, musicians, actors and dancers.

However, a life in the arts can be a tough row to hoe. And throughout history most artists have depended on their community not only for the appreciation that rewards their efforts, but often for the financial support that helps them pursue their craft.

In Dufferin County, one organization has been supplying both for fifteen years. The Dufferin Arts Council offers a host of programs that not only link artists with their community, but have helped many young, aspiring artists to take the first important steps in their careers.

Consider 26-year-old Taylor Wilson, a graduate of Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. He was awarded a DAC scholarship in 1999 when he went off to York University to study theatre production, and where he also served as producer-director in Vanier College Productions, a department which develops theatre programs for young audiences.

This July, he will be mounting his third (in as many years) original play at The Toronto Fringe Festival. And he is about to participate as a performer and/or stage manager for the seventh season in the Muskoka Summer Theatre Circuit. Currently, he is in rehearsal as producer/director of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. His female lead, Andrea Irwin, is another DAC scholarship winner.

But prior to its summer run in cottage country, Taylor plans to bring the show back to the community where he got his start. The show will run for two weekends at the Grace Tipling Hall in Shelburne.

For Taylor, the arts council scholarship he received seven summers ago offered an encouraging early boost towards his goal: “As much as the money was appreciated it was their faith in my abilities that was really important.”

As is the case with most beginnings, the birth of DAC was a modest one. In 1992, a group of Shelburne area painters with the curious name of The Kame and Kettle Artists (the name is derived from geological formations in our region) was renting gallery space in the Shelburne Cultural Centre.

The space, housed in the abandoned two-storey schoolhouse on Second Avenue, had been recently taken over by Ruth Robertson as a venue to showcase local arts and crafts.

This collective exercise in entrepreneurial and artistic enterprise quickly led to the idea of forming an association to encourage arts in the community.

“There were so many people working alone in studios,” remembers Doris Hamilton, an artist who participated in those first discussions. “We needed a stimulus for artists and the public to become more involved in the arts community.”

By June of that year Doris Hamilton found herself chair of the freshly minted Shelburne Arts Council. The charitable organization resolved “to assist artists and art students in all disciplines and to stimulate and promote art awareness and education in the area.”

The following year Jack Downing published the group’s first newsletter and organized a program of luncheon speakers. Membership had swelled to sixty people.

Fifteen years later, membership stands at about 375 artists and art enthusiasts (who pay a modest fee of $20 annually, $30 for families). The Artsletter is still published quarterly, informing members of events, workshops, profiles of local artists and reflections on making art. And the luncheons also continue at the Globe Restaurant in Rosemont on the first Monday of every month (excluding July and August).

The luncheons give DAC members a chance to hear the first-person stories of local artists and others in related fields. Pianist and raconteur Gene Di Novi, CBC radio host Andy Barrie, portrait artist Laurie McGaw, and potter Al Pace have all been among what has grown to become an impressive roster of speakers.

But many things have changed over the years. In the late nineties, Shelburne Arts Council’s name morphed into the more inclusive Dufferin Arts Council, and DAC significantly expanded its activities, introducing member excursions to galleries and theatres, and launching its Art School, to provide professional workshops for artists as well as lecture series dealing with music, art and film for the community at large.

All this, according to Doris Hamilton, “brings people out of their nests to meet others while enjoying and learning about the arts in their community.”

This spring, the lecture series continues when Rick Phillips, host of CBC radio’s Sound Advice, comes to Shelburne’s Grace Tipling Hall to discuss choral masterpieces, such as the St. Matthew Passion by Bach. The Wednesday morning lectures run for three weeks, beginning April 4. ($20 per lecture, $40 for the series.)

Over the past several years, DAC also expanded its “artist support” programs, offering financial and administrative support to artists for grants and educational opportunities; subsidizing artists to make a photographic record of their work; linking them to local venues for exhibition or performance; and hosting an e-mail service.

But many agree the brightest jewel in the crown of this dedicated organization is its work involving young people.

Along with its scholarship program for Dufferin-area students, DAC has also run an “Artist in the Schools” program since 1999. Inspired by Marilyn Logan, who is now general manager of Theatre Orangeville, the program sponsors performing and visual artists to present half-day workshops in local elementary schools. In the 2005-6 school year, eleven local artists presented a total of forty workshops.

Joan Borden, who manages the program, and Pat Vipond, wife of DAC president, Gary Vipond, belong to a barbershop quartette that has participated in the school program several times over the years. They lead the children in vocal warm-up exercises, then teach the basics of a cappella harmony through simple rounds and familiar songs. “It’s wonderful,” says Vipond. “The kids and teachers are very receptive.”

DAC finances its student programs entirely through the interest generated by its Endowment Fund. The fund was conceived in 1998 and nurtured ever since by the effervescent Anne Laurier, who, as she says, “having always been interested in both education and the arts found this to be the perfect means to express it.” The fund, augmented by a prodigious fundraising campaign, is now valued at $129,000.

DAC is proud of the high standards met by the students who are awarded scholarships. These are talented and determined young people, but sometimes the potential released by a helping hand makes a difference.

Long-time area art teacher Glenn Godfrey now chairs the scholarship selection committee. “As the costs for higher education escalate,” he says, “scholarships and bursaries are proving to be a necessity for some of these kids.”

Since 1996, fifty local young people have shared more than $50,000.

Like Taylor Wilson, the very first awardee, Karen Shields, a flutist from CDDHS, has more than proved that the community investment has paid off.

With the help of the DAC scholarship she attended Acadia University in Nova Scotia where she not only won numerous competitions, but was a member of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra. Later, working on an M.A. in Ottawa, she won a place as flutist with the Governor General’s House Orchestra. A continuing education Bursary from DAC led to more study at the elite Glenn Gould Music School in Toronto. Now Karen is a member of the prestigious Maritime Forces Pacific Naden Band in Victoria, B.C.

And it’s not just older students who benefit from DAC’s programs. Last year, DAC assisted four young show and tap dancers to attend an international competition in Germany. They came home with two gold medals.

A few years ago, 11-year-old ballerina Judy Kovacs sent this letter to the council: “Thank you so much for supporting me. If it wasn’t for you I couldn’t go to the National Ballet Summer School. Now my dream to be a professional ballet dancer is one step closer.”

About the Author More by Iain Richmond

Iain Richmond is a freelance writer who lives in Mono.

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