KAGAWONG—The Island artistic community was stunned recently with the news that 4elements Living Arts executive director Sophie Edwards was leaving the organization with which her name was largely synonymous. Ms. Edwards was not only one of the four artistically inclined women who founded the lands-based community arts organization, but for the last decade and a half she has been the driving force that took the organization from its infancy to one of the most well-respected rural arts organizations in the country.
An announcement issued under the signature of 4elements Living Arts chair Richard Lathwell announced Ms. Edwards’ departure.
“Sophie Edwards, long-time executive director at 4elements Living Arts, is leaving to pursue other interests. Given her vision and leadership as one of the original founders of 4elements, she will be sorely missed. After years of volunteer efforts, she became 4elements’ first paid employee and the first executive director. She led the organization from its infancy to a well-known and respected organization in community-based land/art programming and education, culminating in the 2017 Canada 150 project, Elemental Festival and the Billings Connections Trail with its seven major sculpture installations. That work was recently recognized by a 2017 Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award. The 4elements Living Arts board of directors and staff wish Sophie well and look forward to future collaborations.”
The Expositor caught up with Ms. Edwards recently to chat about her time at 4elements Living Arts, the dreams, accomplishments and what the future holds going forward.
“It’s hard to summarize 15 years, looking back, that is one of the main reasons for the creation of the book we published,” said Ms. Edwards, referencing ‘Learning the Land: Creative Community Engagements’ which documents the history of the organization and provides “engagements for educators and community members.” Ms. Edwards was the lead writer on the book, along with contributing writer Heather Thoma.
“So much of the work we have done over the years has been somewhat subtle, process-based,” she said. “A lot of it happened out of sight in the background.” Ms. Edwards pointed to the numerous classes conducted with students at local schools that have taken place over the years as examples. “A lot of that work is hard to quantify, but there are examples of the impact we have had contained in some of the little stories that have come out of that work.”
In one such story, Ms. Edwards relates the Earth Day contributions of 4elements with Little Current Public School. “Every year we would be asked to do work with Rebekkah Batman’s classes, but one year we were double booked and couldn’t do it,” she recalled. “The kids ran it themselves. They had learned how to facilitate the work themselves.” The Earth Day events had taken on a self sustaining life of their own.
The legacy of awareness that 4elements has brought to the Island is one of the accomplishments that Ms. Edwards is most gratified with. “When we first started on the Island, there were not a lot of people who understood what land-based art was,” she said. “That awareness is now much higher.”
In the early years, 4elements was struggling to define itself. “We were trying to figure out what and who we were,” she recalled. It didn’t help matters that there was little to no funding available to help establish the organization.
“There were four women, artistically inclined, that started things out,” she said. “That’s really where the four elements part of it came from.’
Those women who founded the organization back in 2002 were Ms. Edwards, artist Beth Lindner, yoga instructor Lise Smulders and dancer Daniela Pagliaro. They pooled resources and set up a studio above the Kool-it Ice building in Little Current. They offered four types of “living” arts: yoga, mediation, dance and movement. With movable walls, the space also did service as a gallery and art studio.
But soon the vagaries of life had the others following different directions. “Beth was a young mother, and she had to travel in from their home on an island, Lise wound up moving down south and Danielle was finding it really hard to pursue dance in a rural environment.” Eventually, Ms. Edwards found herself largely holding the fort by herself. What followed were years of teaching classes in local schools and in after school programs, building collaborations, partnerships and punching way above the weight of a small unknown rural arts organization.
“In the early days we managed to bring in the Danny Grossman Dance Company,” she recalled. “It was an immense amount of work for what was really at that time just a tiny group of us,” she recalled. “But we found a way to do it.”
At another point, Ms. Edwards said that she felt drawn to go to Europe. “We found a way,” she said. The next thing she knew she was teaching and learning in Italy and Malta.
By 2005, the cost of maintaining the Water Street location had outstripped resources, but by then 4elements Living Arts had discovered a new approach.
“We wanted to bring arts outside the gallery and into public spaces,” recalled Ms. Edwards. “We became much less interested in presenting finished work by companies off-Island and interested in programs and practices that allowed ‘regular folks’ and local artists to creatively research, explore, learn and create.” The organization also began to embrace longer term projects, rather than ephemeral “one-off experiences.”
For most of its existence, 4elements operated on a wing and a prayer, and far too often Ms. Edward’s own pocketbook, but passion is a powerful tool and the arts and addictive master. During these years the 4elements Living Arts office was, literally, Ms. Edwards’ own home.
Things took a dramatic turn in 2013, however, as Ms. Edwards and Ms. Thoma put together an application for seed funding to the Trillium Foundation. Successful, that funding grant brought in funding that sustained the organization over two years. For the first time since she began to dream about creating a permanent space for artists and their work to be based Ms. Edwards found herself with the luxury (and time) that a steady paycheque allowed.
Soon, Ms. Edwards was bringing in professional artists of international calibre, both locally and from off-Island, to engage with the public—and paying them. “I have always believed that artists deserved to be paid well for what they are doing,” she said of her personal philosophy to the arts and cultural workers.
“I called up Michael Belmore, who was already a major presence in the art world, and even though I thought there was no way we could get him, what is the harm in trying,” she laughed. Soon, Mr. Belmore was not only highly engaged in the 4elements world, but also informing and expanding his own creative work.
In its short history, 4elements Living Arts has brought in more than $1.4 million of cultural and arts funding to local communities and schools. In its collaboration with the Town of Billings, the Billings Connection Trail was built.
“The Canada 150 project was the largest and most complex of our activities to date,” said Ms. Edwards. A partnership between the town, the Kagawong recreation committee and the Old Mill Heritage Centre resulted in six amazing commissioned works created by artists selected by a community jury. These Reconciliation works were led by Cree designer Jake Chakasim and 4elements. The six commissioned works joined the carved boulders of Mr. Belmore’s ‘Replenishment’ installation and historical plaques to create a cycling, walking and tourism trail along the Kagawong River and through the town that will stand as a legacy for generations to come.
Ms. Edwards said that she definitely has mixed feelings about moving on from 4elements Living Arts in what could be defined as her life’s work for the past two decades, but she is proud of what she is leaving behind. “The organization has a surplus in the bank and a solid reputation behind it now,” she said. “We have mentored a lot of young people and put in place a very solid foundation for the future.”
“Sophie was absolutely fantastic,” said Kendra Edwards (no relation), one of the 4elements interns who started their artistic journey with the organization. “She set me down and we went over where I was, where I wanted to be in the future, and how to get there.” Full disclosure, Ms. Edwards currently works for The Expositor in the arts department. “It’s funny,” she said. “It was one of my goals to work for a newspaper, and now here I am.”
Sophie Edwards’ shoulders have definitely felt the strain of running 4elements for the past 15 years, but especially over this past year. “I had to set aside a lot of things and make a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “In some ways I feel I short-changed my own family for the organization.” Ms. Edwards accomplished all of what she did over the past decade and a half as a single mother, and financially, it was quite a strain. “Certainly I didn’t take a wage for most of my time so that we could show enough money on the books to apply for funding,” she said. But of regrets, despite the sacrifices, she can’t quite bring herself to cite many.
“I spent so much time building creative spaces and opportunities for others that I didn’t have the time or the energy for my own creative work,” she said. “I am looking forward to having time and a little physique energy left over for myself now.” Part of that time she intends to spend rekindling old friendships and building new ones. “There really hasn’t been a lot of time for anything other than 4elements,” she said. “I am looking forward to the future.”
There is also that little matter of her PhD studies that have largely rested on the back burner while she has nurtured 4elements Living Arts. “It would be good to get that done too,” she laughed.
If the past 15 years are any measure of her determination and creativity, there is no doubt Ms. Edwards will do all that and more.