April 18, 2023
Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund shines the light on Edmonton’s Arts Stars
Over the past 25 years, the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund (EATF) has contributed more than $1 million to Edmonton’s arts economy, investing in more than 140 local artists across disciplines as diverse as multimedia, literary, music, dance, film, theatre and visual arts.
The EATF was established in 1997 by community supporters John and Barbara Poole, Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) and Clifford E. Lee Foundation. When the awards launched in 1998, a jury selected four artists to share in a prize of $13,500. The Eldon and Anne Foote family fund began directly supporting the EATF in 2017, adding to the value and number of the awards given to artists.
In December 2022, 20 artists were awarded $15,000 each for the 2022 EATF awards, for a total of $300,000 provided to creative professionals, including Connor Yuzwenko-Martin and Madeline LeBlanc. The funds are intended to support financial stability for the artists to grow, create, renew or experiment in their chosen artistic endeavour.
From a young age, Connor Yuzwenko-Martin had a strong passion for theatre. And as the playwright and producer of After Faust — the first Deaf-written, produced and directed play performed by a fully Deaf cast in recent Alberta history — he’s found some success in a medium and business that historically hasn’t welcomed people from his community. But his journey has been difficult, and he could never have gone this far without his parents.
Over 90 per cent of Deaf people are born to hearing parents, and a shockingly high number of those parents never learn to properly sign. But “I’m really lucky with the parents I have,” Yuzwenko-Martin says, signing through an interpreter. “My parents are independent thinkers, they’re doers. They researched and figured out the best way to approach language and communicating with [their] son is to learn sign language. So they did. And that was a major factor for me to be involved in drama, and advocate for my needs.”
Being involved in drama and advocating for his needs has been a constant ever since grade school which, when Yuzwenko-Martin attended, was just starting to implement things like a properly trained ASL interpreter — never mind a team of them. “There was an improv group at my high school, and it was my first year, so I was just watching it. But the interpreter couldn’t work with me during lunch. They needed a break, but there was no team. And the principal didn’t understand that. They were like, ‘Why can’t you just continue for the whole day? It’s just improv — just make it up.’ As a kid, how am I supposed to advocate for myself in that situation? It’s like we hit a wall. And sometimes I just gave up.”
But he never fully gave up. And today, he advocates for kids like him and makes space for Deaf artists at all levels, whether it’s running a Deaf drama class at the Alberta School for the Deaf, helping grow the SOUND OFF Deaf Theatre Festival, or expressing himself and creating opportunities for other Deaf artists with After Faust. All of these are made easier by the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund, which helps him find and create new opportunities for himself and his community.
“Most of Edmonton theatre isn’t ready for becoming fully accessible — they’re still in the learning process,” he signs bluntly. “And Deaf access has bad PR right now. It tends to be labelled by the hearing community as expensive. So I’m putting money towards professional interpreters, and to develop captioning. But I’m not focusing on the attitude of it’s expensive — it’s a need, and should be in the budget line just like your wardrobe designer or your set designer.
The biggest need, besides opportunity, is for the hearing community to take part — without hesitation. “There aren’t enough Deaf people to fill up the seats in the theatre — we need the hearing people to come out and see it, too!”
Growing up in a family with limited resources meant that Madeline LeBlanc was focused on what her family could afford with their modest income. And despite the financial strain, her family showed her unconditional love and support throughout her childhood. When she turned 18, her family was forced to make the difficult decision of asking her to leave their home “in the hopes that I would find success and stability outside of the family’s means.”
Through the stress of living on her own, working late nights at an arena and upgrading high school, Madeline developed a psychosis which was later diagnosed as schizophrenia.
“I had a lot of interactions with the ER department for strange behaviour, but I was written off as being drug addicted. So it took about six months before I was admitted into hospital.”
After receiving help and medication, and living on her own again, the former arts-loving honours student began rebuilding her young life while on disability. “I would try to spend only $100 on groceries a month so that I would still have $100 to spend on art supplies,” LeBlanc says.
Art supplies, in this case, meant thrift store bed sheets and classic Crayola crayons, which LeBlanc purchased to save money and accelerate her career by creating multiple bodies of work in a short time. “The only solution was overcoming all this through art. It was a way for me to make an income on my own schedule, so I could still experience the things I experience with my schizophrenia — my delusions and things like that — and that didn’t have to come to my place of work.”
She made her first body of work, Unplanned, in 2020, followed by The Mother in 2021 and three separate works in 2022. They consist of large pieces, many still on bedsheets, full of color and life that seems to express itself in spite of the unfair world that’s long pressured and misunderstood the artist who created it.
On top of her passion and productivity, receiving the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund award will bring LeBlanc into a life she’s never known. Now that groceries and art supplies will no longer break her budget, she can work on improving her craft and expanding her inspirational horizons. “This can really kick start my life in terms of education — I’m reapplying to different schools, and I’d really like to use some of the money to get proper counseling that I haven’t been able to receive. I’ve even thought about talking to my bank about investment funds and things that I have no idea about,” she laughs. “This is a really big deal.”
“Our diverse arts community is one of the forces that brings our city together and makes the Edmonton region a vibrant and exciting place to live. The 2022 recipients demonstrate commitment and excellence in their respective disciplines, helping to foster an exciting ecology of creation and expression in Edmonton,” says Sanjay Shahani, executive director of the Edmonton Arts Council. The Edmonton Arts Council administers the fund.
“Congratulations to this year’s recipients of the EATF,” said Tina Thomas, CEO of Edmonton Community Foundation. “We are thankful for the creative contributions this cohort of recipients have made to our city, and we look forward to the new works that they will produce with support from this important initiative.”
This story comes from our Spring 2023 Legacy in Action.