In a town known for festivals featuring mountain bikes, snowsports, and fine dining, you might be surprised to learn that the longest running festival in Whistler began as a way to expose local and visiting children to different forms of visual and performing arts.
The first Whistler Children’s Art Festival was held in 1983, just one year after the Whistler Community Arts Council (now known as Arts Whistler, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year!) was formed in 1982. In February 1983, the Arts Council began planning for what they hoped would be the first of many Children’s Art Festivals. Over the next few months, a committee of fourteen volunteers led by Margaret Long spent many hours planning for the two-day event.
The first festival was a combination of hands-on workshops, performances, and author readings, as well as an art show at Blackcomb Lodge featuring works for children by professional artists. Over June 18 and 19, children could attend 38 workshop sessions at Myrtle Philip School, then located next to the Whistler Village. The workshops were mainly led by artists and instructors from Whistler and Vancouver and included pottery, banner making, mask making, photography, writing, and, of course, painting and sketching with Isobel MacLaurin. Other activities included face painting, a flower painting contest on the nearby plywood construction fences (in 1983 there were still quite a few lots under construction in the first part of the Village to be developed), readings, karate demonstrations, and performances by the Celestial Circus, Pied Pear, and a children’s choir under the direction of Molly Boyd.
According to Long, all but two of the workshop sessions were filled to capacity and one parent told the Whistler Question that their children were so excited for the festival they barely slept the night before. From the thank yous printed in the local paper after the festival, it was clearly a community event with support from hundreds of volunteers and many of the local businesses.
The success of the first Whistler Children’s Art Festival led to an even bigger festival in 1984. More than 65 workshops were offered for a small fee, including many of the favourites from the year before. Setsuko Hamazaki led an origami workshop while Penny Domries led a graffiti workshop; Arlene Byne taught children how to paint their faces while Cecilia Mavrow taught others about writing poetry. Under the Whistler Resort Association’s brightly striped tent in Village Square, groups listened to stories from authors such as Robert Munsch, Elizabeth Brockmann, Graham Walker, and Linda Lesch and watched acts including the Extraordinary Clown Band and breakdancers in Jane Bailey’s dance company.
The festival continued to grow throughout he 1980s, though they began to run out of space to hold workshops. In June 1983, the eleventh festival moved to a new location in the new, larger Myrtle Philip School on Lorimer Road where about 130 workshop sessions were offered. In 2005, the festival moved to Creekside and in more recent years (not including the past two, when it has been held online) the festival has returned to the Whistler Village. Though the original school may be long gone, there are still many familiar elements to the festival, which, this year, is taking place over two weekends (that past two weekends, May 21-22 and 28-29).