Manitoba

'Gerryfest' to celebrate Gerry Atwell's music and art, but also his advocacy against systemic racism

A festival celebrating the life of the late Gerry Atwell is taking place in Winnipeg next month — but the night will be about more than just music and art.

'We're all missing his humanity when it comes to these types of issues,' his sister says

Musican Gerry Atwell will be celebrated with a daylong festival, all about music and mentorship, on Aug. 14. (Courtesy of Eagle and Hawk/Facebook)

A festival celebrating the life of the late Gerry Atwell is taking place in Winnipeg next month — but the night will be about more than just music and art.

Atwell, a Juno Award-winning musician known for playing the keyboard for the Winnipeg band Eagle and Hawk, died after suffering a heart attack in late November 2019.

Family and friends knew they would celebrate his life with a music festival this summer. But with people in North America demanding change once again, a key part of the daylong festival will be focused toward the fight against systemic racism — a cause Atwell long advocated for.

"We're all missing his humanity when it comes to these types of issues," said Judy Williams, Atwell's sister.

"He always had a different message for the different audiences he might have been speaking with," she said, and were he alive now, he would say "something profound, but something that would be inclusive, whether he was going to encourage someone to take some action, or think of other people."

Atwell also would see the positive opportunities that will come through the conversations being had, added Louise May, executive director of the St. Norbert Arts Centre, where she worked with Atwell for about 25 years.

"Even though it's coming from such negativity and such a negative event, there is so much hope through it, and so much burgeoning awareness, and ability to talk about it and ability for people to confront themselves with it," said May.

On Black History Month, musician Joe Curtis celebrates the memory of Gerry Atwell and his mother Frances, who was one of the first black pharmacists in Manitoba. 2:25

"It's a very, very hopeful time and I know Gerry would be pushing us to see that hope and to really manifest it."

Gerryfest will take place on Aug. 14 — Atwell's birthday — at the St. Norbert Arts Centre. Both Williams and May said they felt his presence during the process of organizing the event.

"Even the term 'Gerryfest' was Gerry's idea," said May. "It was something that we talked about many times, kind of in a joking way. But I knew he always wanted to really do it, which was to have a day when all of his bands played back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

"To which I always said, 'Gerry, what, you're going to play for seven, eight hours in one row?'" she said. "That was going to be the very best day that he could imagine for himself."

Although Atwell won't be there in person, his presence will be there through former bandmates and other lives he touched, May said.

The planning of Gerryfest started before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Manitoba. So the original plan of a weekend festival has been whittled down to an afternoon and evening of music and art dedicated to Atwell.

If he were still alive today, Atwell's sister says he would be joining the fight against systemic racism, using words that are profound but also inclusive. (Submitted by Carla Williams)

"I really think we can just keep his work alive and keep building on it year after year with this," said May, adding that this will be the first of an annual festival.

The festival will also raise funds for the Gerry Atwell Memorial Mentorship Fund, an endowment fund that will have musicians and artists mentoring young people, just like Atwell once did, said Williams.

An invitation is needed to attend the event at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, but people can tune in through livestreams online, said May.

With files from Ismaila Alfa

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