The art of giving: An interview with Margaret Stacey

Margaret Stacey has a long history in the arts and theatre community in Nelson. For 17 years, she managed the historic Capitol Theatre, a beautifully restored 426-seat gem that’s hosted a veritable catalogue of theatrical productions, from Annie to Oliver! to Sweeney Todd.

Her work at the Capitol Theatre, and later as a two-term City Councillor, has had an immeasurable impact on the town’s budding arts scene. However, I didn’t come to Nelson to talk with Margaret about her past day job. I’m here to ask her about what she does in her downtime.

For the 30-plus-years that Margaret has lived in Nelson, she has been creating art installations in her free time… and giving them all away. Her self-described “big canvas” pieces – ranging from wall-sized murals to theatrical set pieces to eight-foot-tall poster art – have all been donated over the years to local churches, theatres, schools, and to other good causes. I had the chance to speak with Margaret about her artistic contributions to the community, and what she’s learned along the way.

Margaret, you have been involved in Nelson’s arts and theatre community for years. Can you tell us one or two accomplishments you are especially proud of?

MS: I was privileged to become the first manager of a restored theatre facility in 1988, and one of the first orders of the first day was to establish summer youth theatre in Nelson. It grew wonderful legs and is still thriving, a musical production experience that more than a thousand kids have loved over the years. It was as important to surround them with real sets, fabulous costumes and lighting as it was to give them superb directors and musicians. There’s nothing minimal at the Capitol Theatre.

The template has influenced the development of other youth companies in theatre, music and dance, and I’ve been asked over the years how it worked so well. I think the tradition has re-animated the downtown core of Nelson in the summer; before 1988 it was pretty quiet on the main street in July. Now summertime is great for markets and street parties and busking entertainment.

The beautifully restored Capitol Theatre in Nelson, Margaret's stomping ground for two decades
The beautifully restored Capitol Theatre in Nelson, Margaret’s stomping ground for two decades


I also wanted to see more sculpture in the city. Big pieces. So I convinced my Rotary Club to commission an osprey family in bronze to be placed in the waterfront bay at Rotary Point. I was on the local team for the provincial BC Festival of the Arts 2000 and traditionally they kicked off the festival by lowering a grand piano by helicopter onto a plaza or lawn, at which point a virtuoso pianist would sit down and dazzle the gala event with music. Well, I thought it would be cool to bring in the osprey nest with chicks and lower it onto a piling in the bay for the opening event. So we did. The soaring moment was watching that helicopter come down the lake swinging the heavy bird nest from the sky to the waiting sculptor beneath who affixed it permanently to the piling. I heard in my head The Ride of the Valkyries… It was thirteen years later that sculpture really took off in the city through the work of the Cultural Development Commission. People really like the surprises that pop up every season.

It’s inspiring that you give most of your own artwork back to the community. Can you tell us how you’re using art to create positive change in Nelson?

MS: It is not an articulated mission of mine to create positive change. As a matter of fact, I am not strategic, and I think serendipity is as close to deliberate as I can get. I fall into things, things present themselves, and if I can wrap my imagination around it, I go for it. I do love projects though. I like to see things grow and happen.

Margaret, with some of the murals that cover the exterior back wall of the Capitol Theatre
Margaret, with some of the murals that cover the exterior back wall of the Capitol Theatre


What compelled you to start giving your art to the community?

MS: I think the first project happened when I was fifteen and a church teen dance needed cartoons on the walls, lots of them. In university, I remember other students asking me to paint mushrooms or flowers on apartment walls in those psychedelic years. Of course I loved the praise and learned quickly to show off, but it was also an early lesson in bravery and I made some friends.

It was easy to adapt to theatre scenic painting, and at the Capitol, I would take a break from the paid job description of managing the facility to go design or paint a set. I remember doing about 30 six-foot character cartoons for the performers of a production in Cranbrook. My kids’ school needed a 30 by 20 foot rendering of Monument Valley for a western party event, the exterior back wall of the theatre needed mementos of productions over 17 years, and recently the Nelson Business Association needed a downtown streetscape for the arrival of Santa. Then my daughter asked for six panels to decorate a gala, as well as a stand-in photo panel for a horse race fundraiser, and another photo backdrop with little royal people for a huge princess party. The Rotarians got five bridge vistas last month to decorate their bridge-themed district conference, and for a low-cost housing project fundraiser lately, I created an 11 foot building with windows that represented funded units. My church had a concrete block wall face that always depressed me, so I made a 30-foot sunburst that has underlaid the creative work of a decor team from Christmas to Pentecost this year. The next project is a photo stand-in for the Kootenay Coop with giant vegetables. Theatre productions have asked for large pieces from time to time: a ten foot Augustan banner centrepiece for Jesus Christ SuperStar, a large fruit cart for Cabaret, the old-fashioned interior of a Chekhov house.

I like big canvases, coreplast, plywood, set flats or bare walls, long rolls of paper, house exteriors, big cut outs, photo stand-ins; small blank pages intimidate me. I use whatever I’ve got around – acrylic paint mostly, and I keep a standard bright colour selection in the basement. I do the work on the dining room table, back porch, lawn, kitchen floor – comes from having to do it quickly with a lot of children about. I have rarely been paid to do the pieces, and any money may have covered the cost of paint. I have none around the house and a scant photo record. I tend to give it all away, and stage pieces usually get recycled.

30-foot sunburst installation at the Nelson United Church
30-foot sunburst installation at the Nelson United Church


From your experience, what is it about art that’s so beneficial to a community?

MS: I’ve seen the work of the fantastic technically excellent artists in Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec. They love their little city and portray it vibrantly, promoting it with regional pride to themselves and tourists. City Hall uses their masterpieces on all materials instead of photos. Some communities use themed art and architecture, but I think that wouldn’t go over very well in Nelson, as the city is pretty diverse, and people come here from so many different places. The creations are diverse, like the residents.

It sounds trite to say, perhaps, that the community is reflected in the art, whether it’s great or not, and the art reflects back and defines the people in the community. If Nelson is full of amazing event posters, that says something about us; if we embrace many walls of graffiti, that says something about us. If we had many expensive galleries, that would say something about us. If the art is theatrical, that is something else too. No matter what the images are, the more you get people in a community looking at the same thing, the more it engages them with one another and unifies, whether it be through a performance or music or visual art.

Imagine for a moment that you could wave a magic wand and instantaneously transform Nelson into the picture-perfect arts community. What would it look like?

MS: I think it is pretty fine right now. I like the surprises and the diversity and the independent thinking around here; I like the noise, the music, the colours, the costumes and the garden art. It is really quite theatrical in so many ways. People here like to restore heritage houses and it gives me great pleasure to see that and do it myself – I am on my fourth right now. That’s another kind of big canvas that, more than anything, reflects who we are and gives us a sense of place. And for all of us, it says we were there, we made our mark, like the ancient cave folks.

Art writ large - one of Margaret's home restoration projects
Art writ large – one of Margaret’s home restoration projects


For years, you have given your energy and creativity to the betterment of Nelson. What keeps you giving back, year after year?

MS: I have lived in other places over the years – Montreal, Vancouver, Kamloops, Cranbrook. I liked to imagine I was going to live in each place for the rest of my life, so with that commitment, diving into the community was fun, particularly the smaller ones where I could really use projects as a way of getting to know people. I also like to harness children and young people into things – teachers never quit doing that, right? I have always thought that the process was the most important thing, and if that was good, the product would follow. When I say process, I mean the human engagement. So this little arts gig I am following randomly right now may be something I can enjoy and be engaged in for another thirty years if my eyes and hands hold up.

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all your community work?

MS: If a person has skills of any kind, there’s always a way to use them, wake them up, try them out, hone them in some way to animate the surrounding sphere of influence. The water is fine – jump in.

Giving has a karmic boomerang effect: The more you give, the more that comes back to you. How do you think your charitable work has impacted your own life?

MS: I do not actually differentiate between charitable work and paid work. People do lots of charitable and unpaid time on jobs if they do them well. I think originally my volunteer work in community theatre was something to remind me that I was not only a mother of four busy kids, but also a person doing and learning as they were. They got an early and interesting window on the world when they came home from school to find something artsy and messy spread out on the floor, or costume pieces assembling on the dining room table. They critiqued and helped and enjoyed it. I now have a five-year old grand-daughter that likes to help and she is pretty darn good at it. I’ve also found some really good mentors through the years that have given me so much. Paying it forward, living in gratitude, passing it on; that is something I really feel way down deep.

Margaret in her happy place, behind the scenes at the Capitol Theatre
Margaret in her happy place, behind the scenes at the Capitol Theatre


Margaret, your commitment to making a difference is truly inspiring. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their community, and wants to make it a reality?

MS: Go for it. Launch. The details will come if it is right for the moment. If it seems too hard to achieve and everything grinds at it, it’s not its time yet. Talk it up and eventually somebody will tell you about it as if it is their own idea. You are contributing to the community’s lore and legend.

Margaret Stacey spent 17 years as the Manager of the Capitol Theatre in Nelson. After her time at the Capitol, she served for two terms on Nelson’s City Council. She also has been on the boards of Theatre BC, BC Festival of the Arts, and the BC Touring Council. Margaret was elected Nelson’s Citizen of the Year in 2000.