In 2008, artist Val Hodgson wanted to paint something familiar to her: women over 50 years of age, and the links that exist among Yukon women.
At the same time, Yukon writer Claire Festel was writing profiles for the magazine Yukon, North of Ordinary.
“We decided to collaborate and I was going to interview the women to add an audio dimension to the art exhibit,” Festel says.
The result is 50 Remarkable Women Over 50, a multi-media art exhibit and book launched this month.
As Festel collected interviews, the women kept asking if there would be a book.
“Or as they entered Hodgson’s studio and saw other portraits of her ‘ladies’, they’d say ‘I recognize her, but I don’t know her story.’ We always knew we’d have a print piece, and this was an amazing opportunity to celebrate mature women.”
Some women declined to participate. Even Norma Shorty, pictured on the book’s cover, was initially unsure.
“It’s a great honour to be asked but, when you’re featured in something like this, you really put yourself out there in the public eye,” Shorty says.
A profile differs from a biography in that it gets to who someone is as a person and what’s important to them, rather than simply listing their accomplishments.
The profiles highlight women’s ties to each other, as well. For example, the book opens with Truska Gorrell, who is cited in Shorty’s profile, who is in turn mentioned in Carol Murphy’s.
Festel knew she had it right when reviewing the finished work with each person. “Some women laughed at the title: ‘You really got me there’, but I knew I’d touched a nerve when the women cried.”
Over three years Festel collected 50 hours of interviews for the book, while she relocated to Penticton. Hodgson completed the portraits while adjusting to her husband’s Senate appointment.
Festel finished the interviews in September 2010 and put in a proposal to Harbour Publishing. Then Hodgson got the exhibition dates, and suddenly both had to complete their work by June 2, 2011.
To meet the deadline, Festel “went a long way down the self-publishing road.”
Robert MacDonald, of Media Futures Institute, Okanagan, advised her to create a mock-up of the book and presell bulk orders to finance the full colour production costs.
“People were excited about it,” says Festel. Businesses and organizations that placed advance orders are recognized as “Supporters” on the endpaper.
Then Harbour expressed interest. Festel had to decide: go ahead with self-publishing, or go the traditional route?
The presales gave Harbour confidence that the book would do well, she says, so they committed to the project, tweaked the manuscript and put the profiles in a Yukon context.
“It’s been an extraordinary journey and a humbling experience to gain the women’s trust and be able to convey their stories and have them say ‘Yes, that’s who I am’.”