In her final days as artistic and executive director of Island Mountain Arts (IMA) in Wells and ArtsWells, Julie Fowler received a carved owl in the mail.
The owl is her Distinguished Service Award from the B.C. Museums Association (BCMA), and it came right after IMA’s virtual Northern Exposure conference and right before Fowler had to clean out her desk for Nov. 1.
Since joining IMA in 2003, Fowler helped start the ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art and has worked tirelessly and passionately to bring many artists to Wells. She’s supported local artists by helping organize workshops and guided residencies such as the Toni Onley Artists’ Project, the International Harp School and exhibitions at the IMA Gallery, as well as organizing the Northern Exposure rural arts conference for the past six years.
Fowler was recognized for this work when the BCMA handed out its Awards for Outstanding Achievement virtually Oct. 8. The BCMA’s annual awards recognize institutions and individuals who exemplify excellence in the province’s museums, galleries and history community.
The Distinguished Service Award recognizes an individual who has made a unique and outstanding contribution on a regional, provincial or national basis to the museum, gallery, archives or heritage field over an extended period of time.
Fowler was one of two Distinguished Service Award winners.
“As the executive and artistic director of Island Mountain Arts, Julie Fowler has established herself as a community leader, cultural champion, social innovator and visionary,” states the BCMA website. “Fowler has made significant contributions in a wide range of arts and culture organizations across B.C. and has demonstrated incredible energy, commitment and hard work. The committee was impressed by the scope of her impact, not just on the festival she created, but on all the artists and performers the festival has helped bring to prominence.”
This is the second provincial honour for Fowler in the last seven months, as she won one of 25 B.C. Achievement Community Awards in late April.
“To win two awards this year, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Fowler. “I definitely feel the gratitude and recognition. That museums award, I got nominated, and that was so lovely, but looking at who past honourees have been, most of them are generally older than me and have been kind of right at the end of their careers, so I thought it was very lovely to get nominated, but then to actually be one of the recipients, it came as a surprise and felt really, really good. That is a really special honour.”
Fowler has spent more than 17 years with IMA.
“I’m definitely ready for it, but I feel like I also have so many things I still want to wrap up, so I’m in that mode, but it feels pretty weird,” Fowler said just days before she officially left her post. “I think it’s going to take a while to kind of sink in, but I’m definitely excited to switch gears. I was able to have a book published back in 2013, The Grand Dames of the Cariboo … I would love now time to write more, write another book. I was able to weave that book in while working for IMA previously because part of that time, I was actually only working part-time at IMA. Since it’s been more full-time, I just haven’t been able to carve out time for my own creative work, so I’m really looking forward to being able to do that and be able to come up to Wells and just enjoy the community and not be so busy when I’m here.”
Fowler is very grateful for the opportunity to work at IMA.
“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s been amazing in that regard, and I just love the organization so much. I feel like I was so lucky to actually get some mentorship from some of the original people who helped to start the organization in 1977. Some of those people are still here in Wells. Some, like Marilyn Rummel, who is now down in Duncan, she founded IMA, but she also founded the Harp School, so I still worked with her every year for the Harp School. That’s been really, really cool to have been able to be a part of that and that really rich legacy. I’m really proud of that and really honoured to have been able to do the work here.”
Fowler considers ArtsWells, which she helped start in 2004, as a great legacy, and she is also very proud of the fact IMA was able to purchase The Nest building, which the organization was able to buy “against all odds” in 2014 with support from Integris Credit Union.
“I just think how important that is now,” she said. “Properties in Wells are getting snapped up, and it’s getting harder to find places to stay, both the motels are gone now to the mining industry, and it just makes me feel really good that we managed to secure that little bit more space for the arts and accommodations for artists and our workers. Definitely big props to Integris Credit Union for jumping on board with us on it because that is all the more valuable now for us.”
Fowler feels this is actually a good time for her to step away from IMA.
“COVID-19 has really changed the face of festivals and any kind of event planning, so nothing is going to be the same as it was when I was running it, so it’s kind of the perfect time for someone else to come in with new idea and new ways of doing things and for them to really not be bound by what happened in the past and to move forward with new things,” she said. “I think it would be really strange if the festival was still able to go as normal, to not be a part of it in the same way, but since everything’s changing and the festival definitely won’t be business as usual for a while, I think that makes it kind of easier to step back. I feel so lucky that all of those things are kind of helping me to move along and feel really good about it and not to be too attached and ‘oh my baby.'”
Fowler thinks the Northern Exposure Conference was another piece of perfect timing, as it was a chance to introduce IMA’s new executive director and artistic director, Elyssia Sasaki, to the community and for Fowler to work on a project with her.
“That also was a really nice way to wrap things up for me,” she said.