Phyllis Stenson had been to the Folk Alliance International (FAI) conference before, but she didn’t expect to attend this year – she’s been retired from her roles as executive and artistic directors of the Harrison Festival for two years now.
The deciding factor though, was a phone call from the FAI executive director telling her she’d won one of the five 2016 Spirit of Folk awards handed out at the event in February.
“When he said I’d won the award I couldn’t imagine how it had happened,” Phyllis said. “To be from such a small community was so exciting [for me], and for the festival as well.”
The award that Stenson and her husband travelled to Kansas City for her to accept is given every year to those who are actively involved in promoting and preserving folk music through community building and leadership.
“What the local community may not all know is the extent to which Phyllis is respected in the broader arts community,” said Stenson’s replacement at the Harrison Festival, Andy Hillhouse. “She was a real pathbreaker in programming that was culturally diverse and inclusive, and always maintained a strong focus on the local community integrity of the festival.”
In this case, that broader arts community is an organization whose conference attracts about 1,800 people annually.
During the panel that she participated in while at the conference, Phyllis’s table had festival coordinators from theatres in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C., as an example of the scale of the event and the status of her peers.
“It’s a very important organization, not only to the festival community but anybody that has anything to do with non-mainstream music,” she said. “Folk music, blues, world music.”
She would sometimes go to the FAI event when it came to Toronto to look for artists to book for the Harrison Festival, to find herself immersed in the “spectrum of the industry.”
So the return for Phyllis and husband Ed to the event after they both retired from the festival was a revisiting of old friends and a past world for the couple.
The pair made a trip out of it, making the journey beside each other, as they had worked for nearly 30 years (and still do when they take the odd job).
In fact, Phyllis feels that Ed deserves recognition too, but she chuckles when she talks about her acceptance of the award.
“When I gave my little thank you speech I was really flustered because there were hundreds of people there,” she said. “And I didn’t remember to mention him.”
But the pair had a laugh about it afterward.
Time for new ideas and new eyes
When she was growing up, Phyllis’s family would visit Harrison Mills from their home in North Vancouver and she decided to make the move there in 1974.
Five years later, she started volunteering for the Committee of Arts Council when the festival was a small affair made up mostly of hands-on workshops in papermaking and painting with a show from the theatre department.
“Then I started learning about how to get performers, how to get grants and it just kind of blossomed from there,” Phyllis said.
The festival quickly outgrew the Arts Council and formed its own society in 1988.
Phyllis built the festival budget from a couple of thousand dollars up to three full-time paid staff, a budget of $400,000, and “a bunch of in-kind.”
The society continued on the path of its founding mandate which was to focus on diversity as a positive way to learn about different cultures through their music.
Then, Phyllis and Ed decided to retire after the 35th festival.
“It was the best festival we ever had, but we didn’t want it to start looking like it was just being maintained,” she said. “It was time for new ideas and new eyes.”
And the almost-70-year-old is confident those who have inherited the legacy of the festival, including Hillhouse, stand behind that original and important mandate.
Phyllis said she couldn’t have asked for anybody better to fill her shoes.
Reflecting back on her time with the festival, one memory stands out above the others.
When a group of 10 indigenous musicians from Rwanda came to Harrison Hot Springs to perform, the society arranged to take their guests downriver to the Chehalis Band where the two cultures interacted and shared traditions.
“Those were the kinds of things that were important,” Phyllis said. “For me it was all about community. When they presented me with the award, that was one thing that was mentioned, the cross-cultural programming and community building.”
Now, she and Ed get to take the time to bask in the honour in retirement as they enjoy the community they helped build.
“I don’t think there was anything else I would have rather done,” Phyllis said.
“I felt so blessed to have a job that I just loved to do that maybe in some small way was making a bit of a difference.”