The performing arts world across the Fraser Valley and even across Canada is mourning the loss of a long-time Harrison Festival Society icon.
Phyllis Stenson passed away on Nov. 22, leaving behind a continuing legacy with the landmark, long-running Harrison Festival of the Arts. She was 74.
Stenson, with her husband Ed Stenson, has worked on the festival since its beginning days in the early 1980s. She became the Festival Society’s treasurer in 1983 and became coordinator and chairperson in 1985 before moving up to executive and artistic director.
“Under her leadership, the festival gained its status as a charity not-for-profit, and grew into a professionally run event, always maintaining a high standard of accessibility and culturally diverse, quality programming,” Festival Society officials said in a statement released Tuesday (Dec. 1). “She established the funding relationships that still allow the festival to present free shows on the waterfront and reasonably priced hall shows, and kept the festival running through some challenging fiscal times.”
Stenson was the lifeblood of the Festival Society from the early days onward, allying Harrison’s art community with organizations and communities across the Fraser Valley and Canada. Her partnership with the Sts’ailes First Nation was especially meaningful to her, highlighting a cultural meeting between Rwandan musicians and Sts’ailes members in 2006. The Sts’ailes community honoured her in a naming ceremony at the 2013 Festival.
Stenson received an honorary doctorate from the University of Fraser Valley in 2006; she held close ties to the university since the beginning of her career with the Festival and served as chair of the university board for a time. Folk Alliance International awarded Stenson with the Spirit of Folk award in 2016, which honours those actively involved in preserving, presenting and promoting folk music. The Canadian Association for Arts Presentation (CAPACOA) awarded her Presenter of the Year twice – in 1997 and 2010 – and she served as CAPACOA president from 2011 to 2013.
Stenson retired from the festival in 2013.
“It is largely due to the fastidious succession planning and solid organizational foundations built by herself and her husband, Festival General Manager Ed Stenson, that her successors inherited a stable and respected organization that continues to bring the name of Harrison Hot Springs around the world,” the Festival Society writes.
Stenson is survived by her husband Ed, son Chris, duaghter Callie, grandchildren Shyloh and Violet, brothers Nelson, Peter, Paul, Chris and Quentin and sister Susan.
For more than 40 years, the Harrison Festival of the Arts has traditionally been a 10-day, cross-disciplinary multicultural art event that takes place in July. The pandemic prompted the Festival Society to re-think their approach, converting it into a year-long, largely online celebration of the arts this year.
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