FESTIVAL SUMMER BEGINS: The Works ‘one with everything’

If you didn’t know that the Works Art and Design Festival was going on, you might not know there was a festival at all.

This is a good thing. Thanks to events like the Works, downtown Edmonton in the summer has become a non-stop riot of audio-visual happenings whose various festival organizers are indistinguishable from one another, making the entire summer from the solstice on a mush of sights and sounds and green onion cakes.

And thanks to the Works specifically, either through permanent installations, murals or even just inspiration by proximity – even Chez Pierre was inspired to do a new wall painting – downtown Edmonton in the summer has become a work of art in itself. Look at the new art gallery, if you can. Bitch all you want about the new concrete Churchill Square, but it – with the City Hall fountains just a short pedestrian-only walk away – is a very cool place to gather for everyone, from workers with homes to homeless without. There’s a lot of love in the Square.

My five-year-old assistant and I partook of the festivities on Friday afternoon.

First stop, a big tent labelled “FEATURE EXHIBIT.” Inside is a big room, at the centre of which hulks a giant aboriginal drum surrounded by a brightly coloured circle. You’re supposed to write a wish on a slip of paper, walk three times around the circle and then go and whomp on the drum. Five-year-old assistant wishes to “play outside.”

We encounter a man on the grass who looks like he’s building a basket out of popsicle sticks. A real artist at work! The man turns out to be local award-winning musician Ben Sures. The popsicle sticks are coffee stir sticks and he’s building a giant coffee cup as part of his gig as the Works’ “artist in residence.” These little sticks, he says, are cut down from forests, manufactured in China, shipped all the way back here, delivered to Starbucks’ locations around North America, where coffee drinkers dip them into their double mocha-soy non-fat lattes for two seconds and then throw them away. Something to think about. Instead of doing that, bring them to Ben. He’ll in the Square working on the thing until July 5.

The Works beer garden is a feast for people watching. Families, businessmen, tourists and street people mingle in perfect harmony. Terrific live music courtesy of the Edmonton International Jazz Festival runs daily throughout the festival. We have a little dance to the funky jazz strains of the Marc Beaudin Band while a guy who looks like Nick Nolte’s mugshot is well into his cups by 1 p.m. It is soon time to move on.

After some awesome Thai curry for me and half a hot dog for the assistant, it’s off to watch the glass blowers and painters amongst the artists hawking their wares in kiosks around the site. Yes, bring money. The Works spreads itself far beyond Churchill Square, of course. There are more than 27 sites displaying art around Edmonton, mainly in the downtown area. You never know what you’re going to see, what visual adventures lurk around every corner of the downtown mall warrens, as Edmontonians have become used to, Works or no Works.

Even the name: The Works – and this year’s slogan, something about using your right brain, can’t remember exactly – evokes the whole “one with everything” vibe. It’s wonderful that some numbskull Australian talk show host finally answered the burning question everyone has been wondering about for decades: Does the Dalai Lama himself actually get the “One With Everything” joke? He doesn’t!

Speaking of spiritual matters, here’s some good news: The assistant’s wish has been granted! The Creator is real! Drinking fresh lemonade while standing in the City Hall fountain is the icing on the cake.

The Works is truly the stealth festival of Edmonton, quietly subverting from within and affecting the general look of this town so gradually over the years you barely notice how great it’s starting to look.

At least for a couple of months here, anyway.