Recently, a short letter from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts announced that Grant Macewan Literary Arts Award had been suspended indefinitely. It happened quietly and with little public opposition amidst a barrage of very public messages from the government about its continued support of the arts in the province. The Grant MacEwan award was something special: it recognized an artist for his or her contribution over a period of time. As short-lived as it was, it was one of the most significant awards in the province and its quiet demise was a blow to the arts community. It highlighted so clearly just how much the arts depends on a firm and continued commitment from all levels of government.
It was therefore particularly heartening to attend the 23rd annual Mayor’s celebration of the arts. Despite cutbacks, the City of Edmonton was saying it was prepared to continue its commitment to the arts and to showcase that commitment publicly. The same goes for the various sponsors, many of who reiterated their commitment to, and belief in the importance of, the arts. To see local artists recognized in this way is reassuring. The awards certainly reflected the depth and diversity of the talent in this province.
The uncontested highlight of the evening was when Alice Major walked up to receive the award for lifetime commitment to the arts. From where I was sitting on the third balcony of the Winspear Centre last night, she was little more than a speck as she walked onto stage. A video screen blasted out a larger-than-life image of her for the benefit of those who would not recognize her on the street. It felt almost out of place, for Alice does not need to be broadcast to let people know she’s there. When she walked onto the stage, she owned the auditorium in the quiet, understated way that characterizes her so well.
Alice is often not the most visible person at arts events, but her influence is felt wherever she goes. She’s the tireless organizer of events, the quiet hand encouraging and assisting young writers, the ardent defender of the arts at council meetings, the juror for awards… The list of her contributions is virtually endless. But it almost always happens in the background.
Yet, when Alice does move onto stage, it is with a quiet assurance that lets people know she’s a phenomenon. When she speaks, it is worth listening; when she writes, her words are worth exploring. One of Alice’s gifts is her ability to make poetry accessible to everyone, to present a moment or a story in language that they would understand and appreciate. It is not without reason that governor-general award winner Don Domanski wrote of Memory’s Daughter that her poetry is “tender, wise, beautifully cadenced work which embraces the reader on every page … [Her] authoritative proficiency comes from a deep understanding of the complexities of aesthetic risks, and the elegance of those risks are so lightly manifested, so luminous, as to make the world newly visible.”
Working with Alice as her publisher gives one insight into her nature: she’s meticulous, fussing over the scansion of a line, or the placement of a comma. Details that aren’t always visible to the reader, but important details nonetheless. And so, too, with the way she approaches her involvement in the community: fussing about a venue here, or about a program there…invisible things that provide the backbone for a successful event.
If ever an award went to a deserving person, it went to one last night. Congratulations, Alice.