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Squamish goes wild for art

Fifth annual festival kicks off, complete with visual, culinary and performance arts

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What: Wild At Art festival
When: Friday, March 6 - Sunday, March 15
Where: Venues throughout Squamish
Cost: Free to $15

Sonja Lebans is president of the Wild At Art festival society, and one of the many organizers involved in coordinating the annual festival, which is entering its fifth year. The event was initially launched in 2004 to coincide with the closing date of the Olympic Games.

"I was on Squamish council and had a conversation actually with the Whistler Arts Council at one point, saying they were going to get a grant from Heritage Canada to put on a festival to celebrate the fact that we got the Olympics," Lebans recalled.

The grant never came through, but since Lebans and the other organizers had already started planning and fundraising, they decided to go ahead on their own steam, and host their own celebration.

"We literally hung the lighting ourselves, we painted the room ourselves - it goes on and on the stuff you do. I always feel like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney - 'Let's do a show!'" Lebans said with a laugh and a spirited hand gesture.

"...The gallery was so beautiful that we collected some money from the artists and kept it open for a full week because it was just so well-received."

Since then the simple one-day festival, which featured a tent, musical performances and a gallery in a local storefront, has grown into a 10-day arts, culture and heritage community gathering that includes live music, visual arts, film, dance, theatre and culinary arts events.

Wild At Art's original purpose was to showcase Squamish's arts, culture and heritage offerings to the people who come to the area for the Olympics.

"It is to promote and grow the arts and culture in our community," Lebans said. "...It is a party, but it's a party to celebrate who we are as a community."

But another significant benefit has been the creation of a sense of unity and cohesion in the community, as people of all ages and interests come out to celebrate local talent.

This year's festivities include workshops for the arts community, an opening gala, multicultural day, Wild For Food culinary events, YouthFest, improv theatre presentation, Local Colour art exhibition, a special family fun day, and roaming buskers.

Organizers also decided to get youth more involved in this year's Wild At Art events, asking students to create unique wooden panels that reflect something about the community. The panels were then strung together to create wall hangings, which are on display at the school, District of Squamish office, Squamish Adventure Centre, and Brennan Park Sports Centre until the Olympics.

"Again, it's to increase and encourage children to be involved in art and culture and to feel good about their community," Lebans explained.

They've also just released a special Wild At Art project, a 12-track CD entitled, Local Colour, which features local musicians and their original songs about the community. The 12 tracks are drawn from a pool of submissions that were juried late last year. The CD will be for sale for $10 at events during the festival.

Over the festival's history, events have been held at a wide range of venues - everything from outdoor tents to strip malls and the new Squamish Adventure Centre. Then last year, one of the organizers had the inspired idea to move the gala and gallery portion of the festival to the West Coast Railway Heritage Park, staging the artwork in the industrial setting of the railway car shop.

This year, many of the events are again being held at the park.

"It worked out beautifully - again, the plinths, the lighting - it was a lot more expensive because you've got to heat the place, and that takes a lot of money," Lebans said.

As the Wild At Art festival has built a solid reputation in the community, organizers have managed to recruit more volunteers to help out with the event. A total of 22,000 hours of volunteer time went into organizing the festival last year. So this year, Lebans and the rest of the organizers are trying to be smarter about how they spend their time, with each organizer taking on a specific task, whether it be fundraising or coordinating art within the gallery.

"Unfortunately, this year money is very tight," Lebans said.

The event's main sponsor is still the District of Squamish, though they receive additional funding from Heritage Canada, VANOC, B.C. Hydro and a number of local businesses.

This year, organizers decided to move the Wild At Art festival to the month of March to coincide with Nordic events, because many of the Nordic volunteers are from Squamish. But in 2010, the Wild At Art celebration will be held throughout the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games dates.

A full schedule of events can be viewed online at www.wildatart.ca, and tickets can be purchased at the Squamish Adventure Centre.

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