BLAST from the past

Most women would be over-the-moon after meeting some of the hottest country music artists in the world, but for Vernon’s Michelle Loughery, it’s all in a day’s work.
For the past five years, the local artist, whose colourful murals around Vernon show the area’s history and culture, has been working in Canada’s country music capital of Merritt.
Every summer, Loughery and her mural crew, a group of at-risk youth who are part of a project that helps them get employment through the arts, have been meeting some of the famous people they have painted.
This year has been no exception.
Fresh from attending last weekend’s Merritt Mountain Music Festival (Mountainfest), Loughery and the youth had their murals signed by the likes of Crystal Shawanda, Johnny Reid, Jo Dee Messina, Doc Walker, Emerson Drive, Pam Tillis, George Canyon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“We did up an entire alley full of murals and all the artists signed them,” said Loughery, her voice still hoarse from the event. “It’s interesting to see them react to what we do. When they find out about the youth, they always ask, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Loughery isn’t sure about the future of the Merritt mural project now that Mountainfest owners, Active Mountain, Entertainment Corp., have announced they are pulling out of the festival due to less dollars coming in.
Merritt may lose its festival forever unless a new buyer comes in, and the blow to the city’s image as the “Country Music Capital of Canada” would be immeasurable, said Loughery.
“It’s sad because I know people there who have worked their buns off to make this festival a success, but they’ve struggled. They need to look at the future and make it a year-long event, where the whole community is part of it,” she said.
However, to do that, the city needs to embrace change, she added.
“It’s a huge endeavour to get star access. We had Johnny Reid, who is about to be the next big thing, downtown to sign his mural, and people here said ‘that’s nice.’ People pay $1,000 for what Merritt gets for free.”
While backstage at this year’s festival, the performers also signed a painting Loughery created of a young Merritt singer, Spencer Vaughn. The painting was also displayed, and signed by artists who attended the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs) last year in Winnipeg.
“We met (Spencer) three years ago. He was walking around the festival with his cowboy boots and a guitar, and told us ‘I am going to be a country star.’ He belted out a tune, and it was like, ‘holy crap’,” recalled Loughery. “We pulled him backstage to play the Walk of Stars stage for the artists and their families, and later when he signed the mural, he said “I don’t know how to spell my last name.’”

Loughery and Amber Papou, who has been working as the administrator for Loughery’s mural company, which just received charitable foundation status, are now preparing for this year’s CCMAs, to be held in Vancouver Sept. 9 to 12.
Loughery was asked to be on the planning committee of the CCMAs last year, and says the awards show has some huge names expected to be a part of it.
“It’s still like the prom committee from high school. We’re still arguing about decorations,” laughed Loughery. “We are also going to have a three-minute video on the mural project showing at the CCMAs, so hopefully that will generate even more interest in Merritt.”
Away from all the bright lights and glitter, Loughery says what she would really like to do is paint murals of the youth, many of them First Nations, that have been a big part of her crew the past five years.
“We’ve had 25 youth a year, plus volunteer youth and their families,” she said. “These kids are different from the crews we had in Vernon. Their needs are higher, but the resources for them are lower. They have no access to computers or jobs. Their social skills may not be at the same level, but they come with the wisdom of generations. Their pureness and generosity has been worth it all.”
For more information on her projects visit http://www.michellelougherymurals.com.

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