May 5, 2016
We live in politically charged times. It feels to me that things are more unsettled than ever before. I don’t know if that’s really the case or if social media has accentuated the same sorts of feelings that have always existed. In any case, everyone has something to say about something, and (thank goodness) we live in a place where, and at a time when, the means of publicly expressing our thoughts to the world are easily accessible. There’s a downside, though. Sometimes things happen so fast and we say things without thinking carefully enough about all sides in a debate, letting our haste and passions override common sense. Before you know it, someone is over-politicizing an issue by drawing in people who don’t want any part of it.
I woke up this morning, routinely checking all my favourite news sites and my Twitter feed for the latest. I came upon an article entitled “Fare Thee Well Young Artists!” in a wonderful local publication, The Overcast (http://theovercast.ca/fare-thee-well-young-artists/). The writer blames Newfoundland and Labrador’s government (I assume she means the government when she says “the province”) for its lack of vision and ability to retain professionals, and holds up artists as a prime example of the “brain drain.” I won’t say here whether I agree with her point. I think I get what she’s trying to say, but whatever chance for my support she had was lost with her naming of 236 artists who have left the province, implying that they left because of “the province’s” failings.
I noted numerous friends and colleagues in her list. So, right away, I reached out to one of them and asked if he had been contacted by the writer. Just as I thought, my friend was not solicited and had not heard of her. He went further, saying, “I feel like a traitor. She made me feel like I abandoned my home.” I don’t want to engage in a debate about government fiscal policy and whether artists leave because of inadequate support. But as my friend put it, if there is a problem somehow unique to artists here, “calling out every young artist who went away to school isn’t the way to fix it.”
If you have a point to make, by all means go right ahead. But if you want to bolster your point by bringing someone else into the discussion with you, then be absolutely sure you take time to talk to them, get to know who they truly are, why they made the choice they made, and have their permission to hold them up as your example. Otherwise, your argument, no matter how well-intentioned, is without substance.
I am an artist. Not a famous one by any stretch. I am a late-comer to the music scene, having entered in my 30s. But I am from this place and chose to make my living here. Along the way, I befriended countless other artists who (1) come from here and stayed to forge their careers, (2) left to explore other more expansive artistic options after getting their initial inspiration from the richness of Newfoundland and Labrador’s artistic experience and training, (3) are not from Newfoundland and Labrador and moved here to live and thrive in our glorious culture.
I recently interviewed nearly five dozen musicians from Newfoundland and Labrador for a major written piece that will be available for public viewing later this year. For now, I will offer this generalization. Reasons for choosing to stay here, come from away to live here, or leave and return, are often personally-driven, highly circumstantial, and as numerous as there are artists. Not to mention that they each have their own version of what it means to be successful. Not a single musician I interviewed blamed government or anyone else for their challenges in blazing their own career paths. Many I interviewed went to bigger cities to see if there was something else artistically there for them that Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have at its disposal. Oh, I’m not talking about money. No one I interviewed said that they got into this work to get rich and no one complained about their lot in life. We all know what we’re in for when we declare that we want to try and make a living as artists. Of course ideally we’d like to make more money. But not to be wealthy for its own sake. The artists who spoke to me just want enough to get by and to afford to continue doing the work they love and, for many, the only work they know. The streets could be paved with gold and diamonds could be hanging from the trees, or the place could be crumbling around us, and there will still be an abundance of new writing, composing, acting, singing, dancing, painting, and sculpting for the love of the work first and foremost.
Some of my friends on “the list” went away to study at specialty schools, others went away to do something other than arts. There are even those on the list who aren’t actually away anymore, or they divide their time between this home and their away home. And no matter where they are, everyone on “the list” either got their artistic inspiration from being brought up in this place or came here because of our incomparable freedom of artistic expression. Artists have always been insulated in many ways from the political and economic climate around them because they place love of work ahead of everything else, and are among the most resourceful and resilient workers I’ve ever known. Wherever Newfoundland and Labrador’s artists are, this is a perfect time to be proud of them and of this place that started them on their paths, and to celebrate and cheer on their fantastic work.