ArtsWells – A Pilgrimage and a Love Affair

IMG_3520For the last four years, Leanne (my partner) and I have attended a magical little festival called ArtsWells which occurs in Wells, BC which is located about an hour east of Quesnel.  Wells is an enchanting place, a 1930s mining town that still retains many of the original structures that are used for their original purpose.  Seems like miners liked arts and entertainment back in the day.

Since I talk incessantly to my friends and colleagues about ArtsWells, I sometimes get asked what it is and I try to describe this love affair I have, but its hard because the festival is so much about the feeling that it generates and the emotional reactions it provokes and I am challenged to describe feelings.  While I often make a joke that it’s a festival where a bunch of tree planters and hippies get together to see a wide range of music being played (folk, rock, rap, and eclectic mixtures of everything else) and to party with old friends and new, I have also taken to describing ArtsWells as a pilgrimage.  Obviously part of this is due to how long it takes us to get there (it takes 7 hours to get there pulling our little trailer) but also because a pilgrimage is a journey that brings you to a spiritual place.

The spiritual element of ArtsWells for me is that once a year I get to re-open and expose parts of my mind and heart to an experience of joy, awe and wonderment as artists, audience, organizers, volunteers, town, and geography meld together in this unique community embrace.  At this year’s festival, this presence of spirit was exemplified at the Sunday morning soul music session held at an old church.  During this session a chorus of good singers (Leanne) and bad (yours truly), led by Coco Love Alcorn and Bocephus King (amazing singers and musicians) came together in harmony which really raised my spirits.  I left that session feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and the vibes are still resonating with me.  To describe my ArtsWells feelings another way, there are numerous times throughout the weekend that I am left with a crazy grin on my face because I just saw something mind blowing or experienced a moment of pure bliss.  That feeling often lingers beyond the end of the festival and sometimes I find it difficult to adjust to the day-to-day routine when we get home (taking a week of holidays afterwards eases the transition back).

There are so many ways to describe the spirit of ArtsWells.  One small example that stood out to me at this past festival occurred while watching a set by Sam Klass in the downstairs hall.  He was putting on a pretty cool show mixing guitar loops that he was creating with various beats when a 20 something year old girl in the audience who was dancing invited a younger girl (maybe 10 – 12 years old) to get up and dance with her and the crowd.  At first the girl was reluctant but once she got up, it was game on for her and her friends.  This simple act could be meaningless or could have the potential to be quite powerful depending on the situation of the kids and I am still in awe of it.  This leads to another observation – there are a significant number of babies, toddlers and younger children at the festival.  This exposure to cultural experiences and creativity at a young age provides some hope that the arts will remain strong in the future and continue to evolve.

Unlike other festivals where there are clear boundaries between the artists, organizers, and audiences, at ArtsWells those lines are seemingly blurred.  The interaction between audience and artists is significant, perhaps due to the fact that the artist to audience ratio is so high and that many of the stages are very intimate.  At ArtsWells, you are asked repeatedly to participate as an audience member.  This starts with the opening ceremonies where there is a smudging ceremony which leads into a parade led by an marching band through the town.  This sets the stage for everything else from singing to dancing to just being able to have quick chats with some of the musicians where you can actually tell them that you appreciate what they are doing.

Something else that is unique about the festival is that there are no headliners.  Sure the artists range in stature but there is no premiere slot at a premiere facility.  There are no extended sets for the artist that has the most sales or biggest name.  The schedule is seemingly drawn up for flow and practicality and not based on egos or record sales.  It gives the festival an egalitarian feel to it which helps to create community.  It can also lead to some wicked collaborations between the artists.  The most phenomenal collaborations and perhaps one of the most memorable things I have ever seen was a collaboration between Tanya Tagaq and CR Avery which occurred in the downstairs hall.   Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer she did about 40 minutes of throat singing that was one of the most beautiful, enthralling and horrifying musical experiences of my life that left me with a severe case of goosebumps.  It was fortunate that she had a disclaimer at the beginning of her show that whatever we heard, she was alright and that we shouldn’t be upset.  Anyways, after taking us through an epic musical journey, she brought up CR Avery who is a beat boxer and they did some kind of showdown for something like 10 minutes. The two artists just kept feeding off of one another, one beat boxing, the other throat singing, unleashing this powerful energy into the packed room.  It felt like they could make the room explode.  While I don’t have a particularly vivid memory, just thinking about that experience gives me goosebumps again.  This was all at a mid-afternoon show…

I may not be very worldly but most of the artists that participate in ArtsWells I have never heard of unless I have previously seen them at the festival.  Given that many of the artists are unknown to me other than a short bio in the festival program, there is a high likelihood that you are just going to stumble into something that you weren’t anticipating. The band Red Haven fits this bill for me.  At last year’s festival I probably would have never have wanted to see them based on the description in the program – really who wants to listen to a lot of sax-based music.  But I just happened to be in the upstairs hall when they were ripping through a set and was enthralled.  That is just one example of many I could cite.  Red Haven is now one of my go-to’s for music.

So this is getting long as blog posts go and I’ve reread and recrafted the previous paragraphs many times and they still fail to adequately capture the ArtsWells feeling.  All in all, perhaps it is just best leave this post by saying thank you to the founders and organizers of the festival, the good people of Wells who keep the town going and allow the population to swell by a factor of ten for a weekend, and most of all to the artists, who are creating and sharing – you are all very inspirational.  My fellow music and arts lovers must make this pilgrimage at least once in their lives!

Other suggested reading: (official website) (cool blog article that is much more succinct and with pictures)




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