It takes a village

What sort of place is Wakefield?

I drive out from Ottawa, hoping to see the visual art that will be in this weekend’s annual village festival, Wakefest, but I’m too early. I abandon the search and stop for lunch at Kaffe 1870, one of the quaint, indie places that line the waterfront. “None of the Wakefest art that I wanted to see is up yet,” I sigh to Jeff Hardill, the co-owner who is known to music fans in Ottawa as the singer in country-rock veterans Fiftymen. “Well, you should talk to Dave,” Hardill says, and motions to his bartender, David Irvine. “He has a photo exhibition in the festival.”

That’s the sort of place Wakefield is, where if you can’t find somebody you need only ask somebody else, and probably anybody else, and they’ll know. Wakefield isn’t just small, it’s intertwined, almost intimately so compared to big-city life. Where else would you give up a search for an artist, stop for lunch and discover the bartender serving you is one of the artists you’ve been searching for?

Even better, I find Irvine behind the bar, in his part-time workplace, just like the people in his photographs. “The concept of the show was local people, from Wakefield and area, in their work environment,” says Irvine, who works a couple of shifts a week at Kaffe 1870, when he’s not in his own photo studio. The portraits, to be accompanied by music created by composer Matt Dubue and shown in Irvine’s home at 691 Riverside, include a typically eccentric and creative slice of Wakefield life — abstract artist John Barkley, along with the village “sushi girl,” and the junk collector who, Irvine notes, recycles. There are also portraits of Hardill, his part-time boss, alone on stage in western shirt and rolled-up dungarees, looking every inch the taciturn musician he is.

It’s like the whole village is involved in Wakefest. Lots of festivals have volunteers — Bluesfest has thousands, more than there are people in Wakefield — but here it truly seems as if everyone is a part of the festival in some way.

Along the Gatineau River, the trees have been “decorated” by a mix of people, and while the results may not be art, they are fun and enthusiastic. One is strung up with drums and a guitar, each instrument hanging like ripe musical fruit. Another tree has been hung with poems, written by locals, I assume. “At one time the warm sun’s rays were good for you,” goes one poem, “at one time there were no manuals about how to make love.” Yet, it’s difficult to imagine that anything ever changes in Wakefield.

Alas, it does, as construction and development move in on the village. The people have fought against a major highway expansion, which is now underway (and causing detours for those driving to Wakefield). Just up the road, at the corner of the new highway, there’s a new commercial hub, with the usual Subway, Tim Hortons and a Giant Tiger, all as convenient as they are soulless. No wonder Wakefield pushes back. The logo of this year’s Wakefest, the village’s fifth, is a Quebec highway sign, a small act of reclamation.

The events in Wakefest idealistically celebrate a life and pace that is cherished. Stefan Thompson, a young Ottawa artist who now lives near the village, will be showing his paintings at Mckenzie Marcotte Gallerie, and if his recent work is any indication his subjects will be wildlife, seen through his slightly surreal but loving eye. There’ll be plenty of visual art at other galleries and willing spaces. John Barkley, the artist in Irvine’s portrait, will be showing in more than one location, and will be joined by others.

There’ll be Canadian films shown on the village’s covered bridge, and lots of music, including a Friday night show at the Black Sheep Inn by Matt Ouimet, who, the program notes, is “an all around great guy.” What big-city program would show such easy familiarity?

You can do a workshop on theatre performance with Pierre Brault, or sketch with Jen Hamilton, or try your quickness at a comedy improv or standup session. You can learn how to draw animation, or how to write a memoir.

Writing, as always, is a part of the festival. Saturday afternoon at Kaffe 1870 will feature a session of David O’Meara’s Plan 99 reading sessions, with Linda Besner, Steven Heighton and Ken Babstock, the recent winner of the world’s richest award for poetry, the Griffin Prize.

Babstock knows a thing or two about rural living. As a city boy I see a cow and think “dinner,” where Babstock sees a cow and writes of the “dry-docked hull of her ribs, anvil head, and the chocolate calm in her eyes.”

There was a calm in my eye by the time I left Wakefield, and, I confess, chocolate in my belly.

Wakefest runs Thursday through Sunday, at just about every place in the village.

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