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Maria Litwin’s winter weave

Visual artist Maria Flawia Litwin was at The Banff Centre recently for a self-directed residency.  I spoke to her about her project, which involved weaving, Banff National Park, and a six-foot loom.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

I came to The Banff Centre with the intention of making a blanket for the National Park. I wanted to explore the idea of making something for a space that’s vast and unfeasible. You can’t leave anything behind and you can’t take anything away from the park, because it’s such a special environment, and a protected environment. So I thought of the idea of how this logically could happen, and what I came up with was an illusion, because realistically you could never really make a blanket for the park. I actually structured the loom in such a way that I could carry it outdoors. It has these portable legs, that I just bolt it into and I could take it anywhere. Schlepping that loom was not easy! It’s almost my height, and it’s icy out there, and cold, and wind catches the loom. It actually collapsed on me at a few points. But that’s where the magic happens.

To see more of Maria’s weaving project in action, click here.

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Mo Srivastava: getting to The Gods of Scrabble

Mo Srivastava is a geostatistician by trade, which means he travels the world applying statistics to the field of earth sciences – helping Florida’s state government count its alligator population, watching camel births in Mongolia. “It’s always really hard to count animals,” he tells me, “because they hide from you.” Srivastava is also the winner of the most recent CBC Canada Writes prize in creative nonfiction, for his piece The Gods of Scrabble. Part of the prize was a two-week writing residency in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. I met him in the Cardinal Studio just before Christmas.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Srivastava really started writing when he turned 50 and took a solo birthday canoe trip to reflect on the previous half-century, and realized he still wanted to write. The Canada Writes win was an added bonus, though he had originally planned to write about the death of his younger brother Paul. The day before entries were due, he’d composed only what he describes as a muddle of tortured words. So he switched gears and wrote about a memorable Scrabble game from his 20s. The submission felt rushed, but it taught him a valuable lesson about writing. “It’s useful to overcome that writing instinct that your work isn’t ready,” he says. “It’s probably better if it’s not your version of perfect because the reader interacts with the text and they generate their own set of thoughts and feelings.”

Srivastava brought an archive of ideas to Banff — a document titled Ten Writing Projects that soon grew to hold 13 ideas. The piece he worked most on during his Leighton residency is a fictional mystery. He hopes if it’s successful, he’ll be able to cross genres as a writer. “I’d be thought of as that person who isn’t just a writer of non-fiction short stories, but someone who’s just a good wordsmith, someone who can entertain in that artistic form,” he says.

I couldn’t resist asking Srivastava what makes a good Scrabble player — he says there are two kinds: people who get high point scores and people who are just fun to play with. His mother falls into the latter category. “She would invent words and dare us to challenge her,” he says, recalling the time she played “grish”. After debating with his sister whether one of them would challenge her and risk losing a turn, his mother quoted four lines she claimed were from Spenser, the last of which rhymed and ended on “grish”. “She was such a great wordsmith that she could pull that off,” Srivastava says. But he still challenged the word. “As soon as I went to the dictionary, Mum said, ‘Ah, it was worth a try!’”

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Alain Jean: “Vous pouvez mettre un arrêt au reste de votre vie”

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l’Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada, était de passage au Banff Centre pour superviser le troisième stage annuel de développement intensif des artistes francophones travaillant hors Québec. Alain est arrivé à temps pour faire la supervision finale de la grande collaboration entre les 17 acteurs, directeurs de productions, et designers d’éclairage présent pour cette dernière semaine de stage.

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l'Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l’Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Quel est votre objectif en étant au Banff Centre? Les Francophones hors Québec n’ont pas accès au même niveau de formation que les francophones au Québec. Et je fais référence aux nombres d’heures. Il est important de donner à notre groupe la formation dont ils ne peuvent bénéficier dans leur propre milieu. Alors c’est notre objectif de réunir a chaque année 16 a 20 personnes, de leur offrir trois stages différents et de leur permettre de rencontrer et travailler avec des enseignants de l’école Nationale de Théâtre et avoir accès de la formation de qualité.

Quelle est la signification d’avoir un endroit comme le Banff Centre ou vous pouvez expérimenter et collaborer? Un monde de possibilités.  Vous vous  retrouvez alors dans un monde hors de votre ville, hors de votre propre espace et vous avez seulement qu’à vous concentrer sur  vous. Vous pouvez mettre un arrêt au reste de votre vie et vous pouvez vous concentrer sur votre développement artistique. Dans les compagnies artistiques, vous avez rarement la chance de pouvoir  vous développer avec aucune pression extérieure, Le Banff Centre nous permet cela. Ça vaut vraiment tout!

Pourquoi Banff? C’est un endroit merveilleux comme vous le savez. C’est définitivement le meilleur endroit au Canada pour le développement des artistes. Et c’est génial de travailler avec Le Banff Centre!  L’organisation est très “complice” – que puis-je dire? Nous sommes très heureux avec eux, et ils [les acteurs] sont très heureux aussi.

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Dance AROUND the shoes!

This month, members of The Banff Centre’s Marketing & Communications team went behind the scenes onstage, on-set and in-costume, auditioning for and performing with Motus O dance theatre’s local production of A Christmas Carol. 

Katie Sainsbury (left), Afton Aikens, and Louise Healy, backstage at Motus O’s production of A Christmas Carol.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we showed up to audition for Motus O’s A Christmas Carol. The Ontario-based company invited the local community to audition for the show and got about 50 children and a few adults (let’s be honest, the adults consisted of the three of us and a mum who got roped in to perform by her kids). We were thrilled to be among the 30 who made the cut. Only one of us had had formal dance training (cue Katie), but the company had roles for the non-dancers, and we were cast as wealthy women with an adorable (albeit fake) pup, who we named Sidney III.

Motus O’s version is a modern take on the classic Christmas tale, complete with cross country skiers, an Irish jig, and a rockin’ 70s disco scene. The story swings between comedy and drama (at one point, Sidney III is viciously smacked by Scrooge’s stick), and played to a packed house. It was great to see our Theatre Arts crew in action, making sure the sound and lighting ran smoothly and that we were on stage at the right time (although not necessarily in the right place).

It was a great experience to learn about stagecraft from Motus O directors, Cynthia Croker, James Croker, and Jack Langenhuizen (who are also part of The Banff Centre’s Leadership Development creative faculty team) and about being a performer. A few tips that stayed with us —don’t steal other people’s props, dance around shoes when they fall off by mistake, and adapt an air of effortless poise onstage when you realize you’re in the wrong position.

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Mary-Rose MacColl’s creative winter retreat

The day I met with Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl it was -40°C — the point at which mercury freezes. Despite the 70°C temperature difference between The Banff Centre and her hometown of Brisbane, Australia, MacColl was hard at work in the Leighton Artists’ Colony, fine-tuning her fifth novel, Swimming Home. She had previously spent a winter season here working on her novel In Falling Snow, and this time, between a mid-afternoon writing session and picking her 11-year-old son up from school, she gave us some details on her experience:

Australian author Mary-Rose McColl, in the chillier temperatures of Banff.

What has this experience at The Banff Centre been like?

The Banff Centre is a really extraordinary place. I think it has to do with the geography, the spirituality of the place, what Canada has made here. I first came here to do the Writing Studio in 1999, when I was much younger, and it was this feeling of…at the Banff Centre, you really feel like an artist, like what you’re doing is important. We have nothing like this in Australia, and I would do anything to make sure that The Banff Centre continues to thrive. I think that most artists who spend time here would. Canada is giving this to the world, and we are so grateful. 

What’s something you have access to here that you wouldn’t have at home?

The mountains. I think that it’s often underestimated how important it is that The Banff Centre is in Banff National Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I see a lot of links between creativity and nature. Being in this natural environment, you can’t help but be inspired, which leads to that other point that there’s some kind of spirituality here, which I don’t understand but I know is here. Something to do with the confluence of rivers under the ground, maybe. When I want to write, I get very healthy, so I eat well, exercise and sleep early. It almost seems a spiritual sort of reprieve — except that I have an 11-year-old for company much of the time, which is perhaps not as quiet a typical spiritual retreat!

It’s interesting that you’ve come here with your son.  How do you find a balance between your creative and family life?

My life in Banff is almost monastic. I get up early in the morning and write until my son wakes up. Then I get him ready, take him to school, pick him up in the afternoon and at night, after he goes to sleep, I do a bit more editing. I’ll go to shows and things like that, but it is a very different sort of life from many artists here. I think that in any field of life, any work, we have to learn to accommodate families, and particularly women with children. I think that increasingly the Banff Centre is more open to families — as it should be. 

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Jack Tackle: the narrative of climbing

“Climbing and adventure stories lend themselves to good storytelling because they’re about events and places that are out of the ordinary in every way,” says writer and mountaineer Jack Tackle. “If someone possesses the skills to write or talk about their experiences well, then the stories can be compelling and interesting to a lot of people. Many will never climb a mountain or kayak some rad river, or ski a sick line. But they will want to read and hear about it because it may motivate them to do something different, or change how they look at the world.”

Jack Tackle on Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon (left). Photo by Jack Roberts. Photo (right) by Andrew Burr.

Part of The Banff Centre’s appeal is its blend of arts and mountain culture, and the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program is a unique synthesis of the two, routinely attracts a diverse roster of writers who hunker down in the Leighton Artists’ Colony every November to work on nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The scope of the program has expanded to include subjects as remote as Mars, but climbing and mountaineering narratives are still at its foundation. For Tackle, a veteran climber and guide, the program presented an opportunity to devote concentrated time to crafting a book about his career and adventures.

Known for his exploration of remote areas and discovery of new routes in places like Alaska and Patagonia, Tackle’s personality befits an accomplished mountaineer. Soft-spoken yet assured, he immediately inspires confidence, with a demeanor cut with flashes of humor and self-deprecation. “Climbing itself isn’t that interesting,” he told me. “It isn’t like driving an F-1 car”.

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