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Legacy of Legendary Musician Gerry Atwell, Supporting Young Artists of Underrepresented Communities

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Painters, writers, performers, and artists of all disciplines found mentorship thanks to a program created in the memory of activist and musician Gerry Atwell.

Hosted at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, where Atwell was a board member, GerryFest hosts the works of artists from the Gerry Atwell Mentorship Program, showcasing artworks and live performances of the mentees. The event not only recognizes the works and life of the legendary musician Gerry Atwell but also raises monies for the Gerry Atwell Memorial Mentorship Fund. The event launched in 2020 after Atwell’s tragic death in 2019 and started as a memorial for family and friends. The event now focuses on supporting young artists, which was always a dream of Atwell.

“Because we knew his legacy was more of a mentorship legacy, the 21′ and 22′ GerryFest is really more about emerging artists, encouraging and supporting them on their path to becoming professionals,” said Judy Williams, one of Atwell’s sisters and board member at the St. Norbert Art Centre. There’s always been a connection between mentors and mentees of various artistic disciplines, said Williams, but GerryFest is a deliberate effort to raise funds for that effort. “I think it’s always happened anyways, and this is really putting it out there, where we’re looking for some funds to make the union a little more solid.”

The Friday launch was also the first time a collection of Atwell’s original musical pieces was performed to the public. A Gerry Atwell Tribue Band featuring Voice of Boom and Rockalypso played songs from the newly released Gerry Atwell CD “Generations of Love.” Darryl “BoomDaddy” Reimer knew Atwell from years ago. At this time, Atwell was an up-and-coming musician. Reimer and Atwell played in many bands together, and it became apparent to him that Atwell was someone exceptional.

“In all the bands Gerry played with and all the musical groups he influenced, he was never really the front and centre.”

When discussing the CD project with Judy, Reimer wanted to create an experience where you would close your eyes and envision a nightclub or other musical space. In that space is a spotlight, and in that spotlight is Gerry Atwell.

“My concept was to make Gerry the focus. I went through all the archives of as many bands as possible and the ones I was involved in as well, along with others, after I moved to Vancouver. I took those songs and found this was the Gerry moment. I strung those moments together, and that’s what this CD is.”

Sales of “Generations of Love” went to the mentorship fund.

GerryFest’s theme was Love Letters to Community, featuring Mentorship Program mentees and special guests, Anuna Oman Ojwato, Cosmic River (musician), Daiisu (musician), Destiny Wilby (musician), Isaac Aserra (photography), Jocelyn Chorney (poet / multi-discipline), Clary Ines (graphic design / visual artist), Ryan Cameron (novelist), and mentors Kwiat and Sonya Ballantyne.

Elliot Walsh, the Artistic Director of the three-day event and in charge of the Mentorship program, first met the Atwell family through Folklorama. Walsh would see Atwell in various roles throughout the years and experienced Atwell’s dedication to helping others when asked if Walsh ever needed help in his projects. The mentorship program reflects Gerry’s beliefs, said Walsh, connecting professionals to talented emerging artists from communities underrepresented in the creative sector.

“Gerry was into anti-racism and disability advocacy. He was also a genuinely great human being that wanted to pass on the gifts he learned and pass them on to other people. This is his dream, his vision, and his family and friends continue it.”

This event was the perfect opportunity for the mentees to shine. Franklin Fernando, a full-time artist and a musician, also experienced firsthand the efforts Gerry would put into helping new artists. “He helped me out to have my first show. That’s how I know him.”

Fernando is the creator of the GerryFest portrait and the album art for “Generations of Love.”

“Judy Williams asked me if I wanted to do an album cover for Gerry Atwell. I was really honoured.”

Visual artist Clary Ines, another mentee of the program, said networks like these create an atmosphere of inspiration and a place for artists to thrive.

“I always love being a part of programs and meeting fellow artists. Just meeting and conversing with them about how they grew as artists.”

Ines would like to become a mentor in the future.

Mentor Malcolm-jay Wilson, who focuses on music and photography, was asked by Walsh to share his expertise and experience as a mentor. Wilson excitingly accepted as mentorship is important to him.

“I had to learn everything from scratch. I made all of the mistakes. Having a mentor, and Elliot was a mentor for me starting out, getting wisdom from another artist helps you not make the same mistakes they did, and you can pick up on what they have learned. Knowledge begets knowledge, so when you share your skills with someone else, they will take it to the next level.”

Mentees will meet up with mentors over the next few weeks.

The Gerry Atweel Memorial Mentorship Endowment Fund is in trust at the Winnipeg Foundation through the St. Norbert Arts Centre. The Goal for the weekend was to raise $200,000 to secure ongoing funds and make the mentorship program a permanent addition to Winnipeg’s art community.

Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U Multicultural.

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