By Vaelei Walkden-Brown
I hate the cold. I hate it bitterly.
I grew up in Edmonton. That is a cold, cold city — -20 C with a wind chill is really not my idea of a good time.
I am born to an Australian father and Polynesian mother. My DNA is from hot, sunny places.
Last fall I put a call out on Facebook asking friends how they dealt with the cold. I received so much great advice which included hot baths, warm soups, increased Vitamin D intake, cozy sweaters and scarves, skiing, snowshoeing, the list goes on. I have taken all that advice on board, but I still hate the cold. This winter in Penticton is particularly cold. It is not as cold as Edmonton, but it is cold.
At this time of year I always stop feeling sorry for myself when I am reminded of our friends who live on the street.
Here in Penticton I always think of Paul. He is the handsome man that sits by the Smart Shopper downtown throughout the entire year. Paul used to work as a bouncer at the Mule. I believe he was also an electrician or plumber at some point. He had a wife and kids. For whatever reason he has neither a job or a family any more and sits there hoping that one day his children will come looking for him. I can’t help him nearly as much as I’d like to. I have sometimes fallen to sleep crying about this fact.
What gives me hope is action. Such action as taken by people like local artist Kristine Lee.
Kristine is a single mom and earns her keep by painting houses and businesses and selling art. Kristine also spends a lot of time nurturing what she calls “her village.”
As the cold approached in fall 2016 Kristine began working with the Keep the Cold Off Penticton Foundation to help raise funds to do as the foundation title suggests. By gathering donations from local artists and local businesses, Kristine creates fundraising baskets that are auctioned on Facebook with proceeds going to KCOP. This money is then distributed to our city’s homeless population in the form of socks, scarves, toques and toiletries. So far Kristine has raised nearly $700 from three baskets. She also generated funds for 10 sleeping bag jackets made by U.S. company Empowerment Plan, valued at $180 each.
Art has been contributed by artists such as Jan Little, Michael Hermesh, Renee Martin, Shane Koyczan and one of my good friends, Brian Boyer.
When I met Brian he was homeless. He was living under the bridge near Front Street. He was drug addicted, broke and destitute. He was also twisting trees from salvaged aluminum and copper wire.
On a late summer afternoon I was sitting in my office at the 557 Artist Block with a friend and my partner contemplating the annoyances of a hangover. This man in a cloak and holding a staff walked in, gave us a nod and began the walk through the shop. He looked like a shaman. Eventually he made his way over to us and asked what the place was all about. I told him that I sold art and products by B.C. artists and makers. He then asked what he had to do to get his art into the shop. I said that I had to like it and he had to pay a $50 joining fee. He didn’t have the money, but came back the next day with a large cable of aluminum wire. In one hour, with his bare hands, he turned that wire into a double trunk tree that had these beautiful flame branches. I asked how much he would sell that for. When he told me $5 I almost choked. I said I would absolutely not sell it for that price, but I would sell it. I also made him promise that if I was to sell his work he was to follow my pricing. I sold that piece one hour later for $25.
Three years later, Brian Boyer is in Prince George selling his trees next to Robert Bateman paintings. He has received a commission from the city library to do a large piece for the central staircase. He is drug free and is excelling at the business of selling art. He also continues to give back to the community of street people he once shared the night skies with. He also gives back to the arts community that has helped him along the way. Before Christmas, Kristine Lee organized a fundraiser for our beloved Penticton Art Gallery. Brian donated one of his larger trees valued at $350 to that.
This is the kind of story that really does warm the chilly heart. It is a story that truly shows the power of art to transform and improve lives.
If we haven’t been convincing you yet that art matters. I hope this story does.
Stay warm and please look after each other. Love is the purest act of creation and the most beautiful form of art.
To contribute to Keep the Cold Off Penticton like their Facebook page and follow their events. A new basket will be released by Kristine Lee in the next few weeks. www.facebook.com/keeppenwarm.
Vaelei Walkden-Brown is the executive director of the Penticton and District Community Arts Council.