Create Calgary: Touchpoints

An image of three people posed in traditional dress
Lanre Ajayi launched Ethnik Festivals in 2019 for BIPOC Canadians to showcase their culture. | Photo: Motif Photography

Create Calgary: Touchpoints

These local artists, community-builders and arts leaders are creating meaningful opportunities for Calgarians to connect with the arts, the city, each other and the world

This article was originally published in Create Calgary, a new arts magazine launched by Calgary Arts Development in 2022 to celebrate the work of artists who call Mohkinsstsis/Calgary home. You can pick up a free copy at public libraries, community recreation centres and other places where you find your favourite magazines. You can also read the digital version online here.

Image on Lanre Ajayi
Lanre Ajayi tells the stories of the city from the lens of an immigrant. Photo: Motif Photography.

Lanre Ajayi: Connecting to culture

Originally from Nigeria, multidisciplinary artist Lanre Ajayi arrived in Calgary in 2015 to the joyous sights and sounds of his first Stampede. However, Ajayi realized that many in his global network hadn’t even heard of “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” prompting him to document the festival and help tell the story of his new city. Soon after, My City Speaks to Me was born with the intent to showcase what Calgary has to offer.

With new episodes released on YouTube multiple times per month, the video series has covered a lot of ground, from the opening of Calgary’s Central Library, to the Calgary International Film Festival’s red carpet, to paying a courtesy call on Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

“What I’m doing is not journalism,” says Ajayi. “It’s new media — telling stories from the lens of an immigrant, creating an opportunity to create connectivity between people, places and the events that bring them together.”

In 2019, Ajayi launched Ethnik Festivals Association to encourage that togetherness. The association brings together different pockets of Afro-Caribbean communities to host a huge festival similar to what already exists in Montreal and Toronto. “We can do the same thing in Calgary,” he says.

According to Ajayi, the festival is a place where BIPOC Canadians can showcase their culture, which gives audiences an understanding of different ways of life. “You can’t take community away from culture.”

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An image of a kid dipping a paintbrush into a palette with an in-progress painting and cup of paint in front of them
YMCArts offers art classes and live performances for all ages. Photo: Motif Photography.

Judy Lawrence: Connecting to community

Longtime arts leader and community-builder Judy Lawrence joined the YMCA Calgary in 2017. As general manager of the arts, Lawrence is driving the charge to integrate the arts into the Y’s mandate to build healthy and thriving communities. “It makes perfect sense that the YMCA would embrace the arts as part of its core mandate,” says Lawrence.

Launched in 2020 and dubbed YMCArts, the Y’s new art programming includes a growing number of arts classes for all ages and camps for kids offered at YMCAs across the city. YMCArts also offers a series of performances with an expanding list of partners from groups including the Calgary Philharmonic, the Festival of Animated Objects and Quest Theatre. A third initiative includes renting out its performance spaces to artists at affordable rates, including the theatres at the newly built YMCA locations in the city’s northwest and southeast.

The impact has been noticeable. Lawrence recounts hearing from a parent about how their daughter was moved to strike up conversations with other kids after attending a production of the puppet show, Freddie in the Neighbourhood, at the YMCA. (In the show by the Little Onion Puppet Company, Freddie the dog attempts to be brave and overcome his shyness.) Lawrence says the art classes are also having a deep impact on health and well-being.

“Young people are building their self-expression skills, and they’re doing it in a safe environment with friends or soon-to-be friends,” Lawrence says.

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Image of Shelley Youngblut holding a stack of books with a microphone to her left and a dog to her right
Shelley Youngblut launched the world’s first literary streaming channel. Photo: Heather Saitz.

Shelley Youngblut & Wordfest: Connecting to ideas

“Connection is the thing that’s driven me my entire career,” says Wordfest CEO and creative ringleader Shelley Youngblut, speaking about her time as a magazine editor and now hosting events for Wordfest. “It’s always about connecting the most interesting, vital, soul-nourishing ideas with the most intelligent, empathic, funny and engaged humans.”

Founded in 1996, Wordfest has broadened its event offerings in recent years with unique formats like “A Spirited Conversation,” where high-end liquor tastings are paired with intimate conversation and music. “I wanted it to have all the theatrical juice that a music performance or theatre performance might have, so we really upped our production game,” says Youngblut.

With those skills in hand and the COVID-19 pandemic putting the world on pause, Wordfest launched Imagine on Air, the world’s first literary streaming channel, playing host to more than 200 shows between 2020 and 2021. “We realized there was an opportunity to take that Wordfest special sauce and apply it to online conversation-focused events,” says Youngblut.

In spring 2022, Wordfest made its return to in-person programming with “The Way We Connect,” which showcased six Calgary authors and one from Edmonton. Currently, it has a range of in-person and online events in the works. “You don’t need to read the book to come to the show,” says Youngblut. “We have the world’s most interesting thinkers and doers, who have just happened to have written a book there for you.”

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Two people and child walking away on path at Elbow Island Park with Calgary skyline in background
Exploring the Wandering Island public art project at Elbow Island Park. Photo: Mike Tan.

Wandering Island Public Art Project: Connecting to nature

Home to ad-hoc memorials, geocaches and a unique variety of plants and wildlife (including an infamous three-legged deer), Elbow Island Park also became host to a new public art project in late 2020 called The Wandering Island, led by artists Caitlind r.c. Brown, Wayne Garrett and Lane Shordee.

The project consists of six interactive art installations, including a new set of stairs that lead down to the island from Mission Bridge. The stairs, called Fish Ladder, were designed by Brown and Garrett and offer the only access point to the park. “We started with the stairs, and then it emerged into a project that included other artworks, other sites, other artists and other concepts,” says Brown.

Other installations include a series of stepping stones carved with textual artwork allowing visitors to cross a secondary water channel titled Crossing, by Inuit artist Kablusiak. Alongside the stepping stones are carved stone benches created by Shordee. Three artist-designed benches are also a notable part of the project — Bridging Whirlds by Laura and Michael Hosaluk, Late Lunch by Jeremy Pavka and Sean Procyk, and The Sun Chairs by Susan Clarahan and Joel Staples.

Ever-changing with the seasons, the island’s unique landscape is as wild as it gets in inner-city Calgary, and aspects like the artist-designed benches and the rock ford, stepping stones to cross the water, are meant for visitors to stumble upon at their own pace as they wander down the meandering dirt pathways.

According to Brown, they were careful to think about what the desires of the space were and how to amplify that connection between the space and the people who use it. “I think sometimes art can be a lens and you can use it to see the spaces around you more clearly,” says Brown.

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