Meet the Maker: Greg Tilson of Skeleton Park Arts Festival

By Sara Smith

Imagine a neighbourhood alive with art. A place where jazz bands play as they amble down the street, international artists perform alongside local favourites, and drag queens read storybooks to delighted audiences. Everywhere you look, someone is making something, buying a unique handicraft, or enjoying a delicious morsel of food. The sun shines on all, as people begin to laugh and dance in the street. At every turn, art is being created, shared, appreciated. Everyone is welcome. Everything is vibrant, and oh so distinctively “Kingston.”

Sound too good to be true? Not at the Skeleton Park Arts Festival.

Skeleton Park Arts Festival
Skeleton Park overflows with colour, sound, and creativity during the Skeleton Park Arts Festival. Image via Skeleton Park Arts Festival

The Skeleton Park Arts Festival (or SPAF for short) was founded in 2006 as a way to celebrate and share the active local arts community. Artistic director Greg Tilson, who previously worked for the Kingston Arts Council and is a musician in local band The Gertrudes, has been with the fest since its inception. “When I arrived in Kingston I dove primarily into the music scene, and my love of the arts started here,” he says. “I was one of the founding organizers of the first festival.” Tilson and his cohorts wanted to give a platform to the many new voices that were burgeoning in the McBurney Park district (nicknamed Skeleton Park because of its history as a graveyard). “There are a lot of young artists in this neighbourhood,” he says. “This sort of critical mass formed, channelling the vibrant and youthful energy here.”

Greg Tilson of Skeleton Park Arts Fest
As artistic director, Greg Tilson looks for unique, inspiring, and empowering programming that will unite the community. Image via Skeleton Park Arts Festival

Tilson recalls that the inaugural SPAF was a modest affair, with one tiny stage built on some scaffolding. “It was really on a shoestring,” he says. “It was a small event in one corner of the park, following in the tradition of annual neighbourhood solstice picnics.” Twelve years later, the tiny seed of this event has sprouted into something much larger, with street parties, multiple stages, and many days of programming.

Although the event has evolved, Tilson proudly and passionately shares that the original spirit of SPAF has never wavered. “Our budget has grown, and it’s allowed us to expand, to reach more people, and to use even more alternative spaces,” he says. “But we have always been a not-for-profit, and access and diversity are important to us. We’re trying to build community through the arts, not turn people away at the door.” For this reason, the entirety of the festival’s performances and experiences are offered free to all attendees. They rely on sponsorships and donations from patrons to create festival-related programming year-round. Unlike some larger profit-driven fests, SPAF finds freedom in embracing a wide variety of acts from all walks of life.

“Because we’re not relying on ticket sales, we have the freedom to be more adventurous,” says Tilson. “We have the liberty to help give a voice to people who have been oppressed, or perhaps haven’t been given the spotlight or the platform to express themselves.”
Skeleton Park Arts Festival Porch Jazz
You never know who will make an appearance at the porch jazz parade. Image via Skeleton Park Arts Festival

This year’s schedule is no exception, boasting a delightful mix of established artists with newcomers and fringe performers in a wide variety of disciplines. Fresh voice and internet celeb Noelle Maracle will open for 2017 Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta. Kalimba master Njacko Backo takes the stage ahead of childhood favourites Sharon & Bram. The popular Singalong! event will feature Spencer Evans and the Goat Steppers parade band leading some truly indie and unknown singers: the audience, who are encouraged to sing at the top of their lungs. Visual arts will soar to new heights during the Skeye installation, where a screen supported by helium balloons will hover over Friendship Park, displaying projected works by local film artists and accompanied by live music. Creative humans of all ages will unleash their inner magical architect at Boxtopia Village. Yoga, drumming, storytelling, theatre, poetry, the famous Porch Jazz Parade, the Rheostatics, a hip-hop street party, local food and craft vendors, community booths, and more also fill the bursting-at-the-seams schedule.

With a dedicated board of directors (including Kingston fave Sarah Harmer) and close to 150 volunteers, SPAF is a genuine labour of love that reflects the community’s commitment to the arts. “It’s a community project; it’s run for, and by, the neighbourhood,” says Tilson. In addition to displaying the weird, wonderful talents of performers and artists, the festival organizers want nothing more than for every attendee to participate in the goings-on.

“We’re about meeting new people, singing, doing a square dance in the park, and being very engaged and active,” says Tilson. “We want people to feel empowered to create their own art.”
Skeleton Park Arts Festival Harmer Stage
Musician and SPAF board member Sarah Harmer plays the main stage. Image via Skeleton Park Arts Festival

He recalls a moment a few years back where this intention came to life in a surprising way. “During a Latin music performance at the porch jazz parade, there were all these musicians, puppets, and people in costume who had just shown up, and I didn’t plan or program this,” he says. “I thought, ‘I had nothing to do with this; it’s taken on a life of its own.’ It wasn’t what we had planned, but it was so much better than we could have imagined.”

With an atmosphere that’s welcoming, authentic, and sparkling with creative energy, it’s no wonder that fascinating surprises can pop up at any moment during the Skeleton Park Arts Festival. This year, who knows what might happen?

Visit the Skeleton Park Arts Festival website for a full lineup of this year’s events.