Inaugural GerryFest brings Winnipeg’s cultural community together

By | August 14, 2020

Through music, spoken words and visual arts, Winnipeg’s cultural community came together Friday evening to honour the legacy of Gerry Atwell.

On what would have been Atwell’s 61st birthday, the inaugural GerryFest went off Friday evening despite many hitches — including a global pandemic and unco-operative weather. 

“It’s just a super creative, kind of chaotic, exuberant time,” said Louise May, executive director of the St. Norbert Arts Centre, which hosted the festival. 

“Both with COVID restrictions and the rain changing everything, and all of these artists under one roof, it’s just very energized, super energized,” she said.

Organizers put together a lineup of around 40 performers for the invitation-only event, which had to be scaled down due to restrictions in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, then reduced further when rain forced it to move inside the arts centre.

Almost everyone in attendance had some connection to Atwell, whose impact on the local arts scene spread so far that the festival had to turn down offers to participate, said his sister Judy Williams.

“He was very good at connecting people, working with new aspiring actors, seeing things in people that they didn’t even see in themselves,” she said.

Louise May, left, and Atwell’s sister, Judy Williams, say the vibe at GerryFest was “chaotic” but “loving.” (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Atwell grew up in St. Norbert and would go on to serve in many different roles at the centre, including as a board member and artistic director. 

Mentoring young artists

Within days after his death from a heart attack in November, family members and friends decided they needed to put on an event that would honour his life’s work. Atwell himself had envisioned a festival at the arts centre, and even coined the name, GerryFest, himself, Williams said.

In addition to his talents as a keyboard player and vocalist, Atwell was a passionate mentor to young artists, including his nephew, Brenda Kinley, vocalist for the band Super Duty Tough Work, which performed at GerryFest.

“He was about bringing people together and providing opportunities, creating opportunities for people, creating spaces for people and then putting them in those spaces,” Kinley said.

Beyond music, Atwell was a community organizer, and representatives from several different groups and levels of government turned out to pay their respects. 

Sisters Nadia Thompson, left, and Rhonda Thompson came to GerryFest to represent the Black History Month celebration committee. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Sisters Nadia and Rhonda Thompson came to represent the Black History Month celebration committee. 

“I consider him to be a trailblazer in our community,” said Rhonda. “There’s a lot of doors that he opened for us as artists and community workers as well.”

Memorial fund

One issue dear to Atwell’s heart was combating racism. Organizers set up stations with paint and canvases, so people could create visual representations of what equality looks like to them.

“That’s part of what Gerry was about, is making sure that people believe in [themselves], and motivate your community and give back, so this is what we’re doing here,” said Nadia.

GerryFest was held on what would have been Atwell’s 61st birthday. (Courtesy of Eagle and Hawk/Facebook)

As part of Atwell’s legacy, the St. Norbert Arts Centre is helping his family launch the Gerry Atwell Memorial Mentorship Endowment Fund. It’s a grant that will support establish artists to work with young people from communities in need.

Atwell frequently spoke out about major issues of the day and with his voice now silent, many at the festival asked the question that was printed in bold letters above the main stage: “What would Gerry say?”

If he could have seen all the people gathered in his honour, his sister Judy Williams believes he would have simply laughed. 

“[He’d be] very pleased and knowing that he can kind of relax now because we’re going to move on and carry on with all of his dreams and legacy.”

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