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COLUMN: Three days at the Tiny Lights Festival

Reporter Will Johnson met musicians, danced with a baby and was immortalized in tin at this year’s Ymir festival.
This piece of tin was embossed during last weekend’s Tiny Lights Festival. Axe-wielding reporter Will Johnson is seen here enjoying the festivities with Zaynab Mohammed (left) and Leesa Dean (right).

Shortly after I pulled into the Tiny Lights Festival on Friday evening, parking my RAV a stone’s throw from the historic Hotel Ymir, a gumboot-wearing Ontario musician named Kirby coasted by on his bicycle. He recognized me lawnchair-lounging and skidded to a stop, swerving over to join me for some roadside beverages.

While we sat drinking in the light evening rain, Ymir Peak looming over the frontier-esque main drag, a human deluge of festival-goers poured past. We sat and people-watched, looking for glimpses of big names like Shane Koyczan or Rae Spoon, while the light began to go grey. Kirby raved about the festival, telling me he made a special point to come out this year.

“You don’t get this anywhere else,” he told me. “It’s like one big happy family out here.”

Pretty soon I saw his point: before long we had more visitors, like visual artist Rhandi Sandford, singer Dominique Fricot and, of course, the organizing pair behind the five-year-old festival: Carla and Shawn Stephenson. Before the weekend was over I’d connect with countless others, including Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak and local musicians Jesse Lee, Rhoneil and Cam Penner the latter of whom I first spotted coming out of the outhouse.

(Is that what they mean by the intimacy of the venue?)

The thing that most intrigued me, going into the weekend, was Carla’s assertion that this festival was less about consumption and more about participation. According to her, the aim is to create a warm, temporary community where everyone feels comfortable flaunting their artistry and engaging in what interests them —from doing yoga in the park to learning about waste management or the healing arts.

As I tromped from one venue to the next, catching Kaslo folk duo The Eisenhauers (amazing!) in the schoolhouse before enthusiastically singing along to my friend Dom’s “I Miss the ‘80s” in the bar, I noted the positive vibes around me and the huge range of ages and backgrounds in evidence.

I’ve often felt that the big problem with modern communities is our lack of cross-generational interaction, how we’ve lost our sense of interdependence, but in Ymir I felt like I was among my people no matter what age. For instance, during one raucous dance session with my friend Cheryl I asked whether I could dance with her infant friend Blake. When she agreed I held him to my chest and spun him around to the tinkling of a washboard/bell contraption the band was using. When I ran into him a second time the following day my fledgling friend nuzzled into my neck and smiled up into my face.

But I also met people my age, like my campsite neighbours Claire and Kelsea, who invited me to jump into the Salmo River with them on Sunday morning. I took them up on the challenge and came out scream-panting and refreshed. In every crowd I saw familiar faces, good people.

Then on Sunday I marched in the first ever Surrealist Parade with my festival companion Leesa Dean, who was celebrating her birthday. Together we’d Valu-Villaged some costumes together for the event, which the program promised would “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”

My animal-themed blanket cape, faux-furred winter hat and neon board shorts contrasted against her Cookie Monster-esque cloak as we joined the kids marching past the fire hall and into the park to the beat of drums.

Reflecting back now, there are lots of things about Tiny Lights I would love to rave about like how I got my image immortalized in tin, how my friend Rhandi’s creepy puppets made a big impression and how I was hyper-enthusiastic about both the mobile barbecue and coffee shop but the biggest takeaway was the sense of insta-belonging, the giddy high of being surrounded by people who care about community and make art their life’s priority.

One performer who stood out was Nelson singer Rhoneil, who recently released a new album and was showing off her autoharp skills in a church venue uniquely suited to her experimental, ethereal sounds. I saw her twice and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say she transported me elsewhere during those performances, somewhere mist-shrouded and far away.

And I almost missed him because his community hall performance had been too-packed a day earlier, but by far the most moving experience was grass-sitting at the base of spoken word artist Shane Koyczan’s stage while he shared work with backup from his band, the Short Story Long.

I had no idea at the time, and I imagine neither did Koyczan, but earlier that day the biggest single shooter massacre in American history had taken place in Orlando. His pro-love, anti-bullying poems had a gut-level power that only grows with retrospect. He shared his experience of being taunted by his classmates for dancing with a nun as an awkward Catholic School child.

“We are graduating members from the class of We Made It, not the faded echoes of voices crying out ‘names will never hurt me.’ Of course they did,” he shouted, the white evening light glinting in the grass. Moments later he invited everyone there to jump to their feet and dance an invitation I took him up on.

“Our lives will only ever always continue to be a balancing act that has less to do with pain, and more to do with beauty.”