Leaping into Rural Arts

A reflection on the 2018 SPARC Symposium in Cobalt, Ontario by youth bursary attendee Katy Grabstas

On March 21st, my dear friend Chandel Gambles reached out to me over Facebook. “OH! You are into arts promotion and admin. Do you want to apply for a youth bursary to attend the SPARC Symposium in Cobalt? It’s about performing arts in rural and remote communities.” I was intrigued. I asked what I could expect there, and Chandel promised me a diverse gathering of people united by the passion of creating and nurturing the arts in rural Ontario.

I was already typing that I would definitely apply, when she messaged “Also you’ll be the envy of all the kids on your block, because you’ll get to stay in the land of the “Hardy Boys”. 😉 The first ghost author wrote the series from here and used the area for inspiration!” Well, how could I say no now? Also, how could I have ever known that SPARC would become such a formative experience, and that I’d fall in love with the town of Cobalt?

As a former theatre and television actor, now gaining Arts Management certification at the University of Toronto, I had no idea what exactly I was getting into as I made the long drive up north. All I knew was that I had recently become disillusioned with the role that performing arts played in my life. Over the last six years I had become swept up in the “big city’s” desperate goal of monetizing your passion. Much like many artists before me, I discovered that this was an entirely unsustainable way to live (both spiritually and economically) and so I began this new degree in hopes of rekindling my passion and inspiration.

This was my headspace when I entered The Cobalt Community Hall, and put on my nametag. Over the next few days, I felt absolutely welcomed into this new community. I met people from all over Ontario and I heard life stories that were all the more incredible because they were true. Conversations started with ease – after all, even though our lives may be very different, as participants at a performing arts symposium we already had one passion in common!

Each day began with a hearty breakfast coordinated and run by Roger Sumner and Marie Manchester. It showcased the best local food that the Temiskaming District has to offer! I was so impressed that I brought home a bag of buckwheat flour and a bottle of local haskap berry syrup so I could recreate the amazing pancakes at home!

During the days of the symposium, I got to witness and participate in several workshops covering a wide variety of subjects. For example, I enjoyed a talk led by youth leaders from the Digital Creator North Program, who discussed how bringing digital art tools to kids in northern communities has created a safe-space for creative and personal exploration. Then I attended an intimate gathering in a board game coffee shop where Jack Langenhuizen (Motus O Dance Theatre) and Jowi Taylor (Six String Nation Guitar) chatted about using performing arts as a jumping off point to foster community engagement. After this particular workshop, symposium attendees were invited to have their photo taken with the Six String Nation Guitar. This photo session allowed us to become part of the cultural mosaic of 15,000 people who have had their portraits taken with this “instrumental” (see what I did there?) piece of Canadian history.

I do have to take a moment and relive wandering through the streets of Cobalt while I write this. I had heard a lot about how we as Canadians should be proud of our country’s natural beauty and history, but I hadn’t had a picture in my mind’s eye of what that meant until I came here. I kept seeing subtle signs of Cobalt’s rich history, and hints of what it may have been like living here during the silver mining rush at the beginning of the 20th century. Streetcar tracks run through the forest just outside of town, while state-of-the-art (for its time) mining equipment lives by the banks of the lake. Entrances to mining tunnels dot the ridges around Cobalt, hinting at the separate underground world that runs beneath the town.

                                             Photo by Colin Harris

A definite highlight of this region was a guided hike leading through the trails to Devil’s Rock. This sheer cliff face plunges 150 metres down into Lake Temiskaming, with an unforgettable view of the Canadian landscape. Not only did our guides tell us about the local history and ecology of the forest, we were also led through a mindfulness meditation as we sat on the cusp of the cliff’s edge.

While visiting the Temiskaming District, I was struck by how deeply proud the local inhabitants were of their rural town. The natural beauty, the town’s history, and of course the amazing local food all spoke to the unique experience of visiting this corner of Canada. This cohesion across communities (even those separated by long stretches of highway through dense forests) is unlike anything I have experienced during my years in Toronto.

This communal mentality was reflected in the participants at the symposium. Everyone there held similar passions which were simply separated by geography. SPARC provided us with a gathering place to find collaborative partnership and inspiration. I overheard many networking conversations and job proposals during meals. Considering how huge our province is, a gathering place like the one that SPARC created in Cobalt is invaluable for arts workers across Ontario.

During my time at the symposium I recalled my earliest memories of being entranced by performing arts and storytelling. In the push to make my acting career financially stable, I had completely forgotten that my first love was neither television, nor even theatre. As a child I was fascinated by the concept of time travel, and so discovering that there was a community of costumed historical interpreters dedicated to making local histories come alive was a revelation to me. I would not have been reminded of this had I not both participated in the Rogues in Partnership workshop, which talked about producing plays about local history, and witnessed a historical reenactment of voyageur life on the banks of Cobalt Lake.

Besides reaffirming my love for the performing arts, the SPARC Symposium also provided practical opportunities. As I approach graduation, I have begun to watch for where I can best put to use the knowledge I have gained through my program. I am now in contact with several rural arts organizations who are interested in hiring me as a consultant once I graduate, in order to help create a strong administrative foundation for their performing arts companies. I will definitely be recommending this symposium to my classmates!

Although it’s been a few months since the symposium ended, I know I will be carrying the experience with me once I return to classes in the fall. I want to learn more about bringing Canadian history to life by facilitating storytelling events. I also feel more in touch with the performing arts across this wide province. In the coming months I plan to bring that awareness of underrepresented arts groups to fellow students and colleagues. I feel revitalized, and I owe it all to a Facebook message from Chandel and a leap of faith. Sometimes that leap turns out to be a six hour drive north.

                                  Photo by Colin Harris

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