Regina, Treaty 4: Risa Payant


(Photo by Eagleclaw Thom, Intro by Terri Fidelak)

The instant I first set eyes and ears on Risa, I was wildly enamoured. She’s a brainy, articulate babe who rocks lipstick like an intergalactic sex bomb. Even before we became co-conspirators and kindred pals, I recognized the essence of her: Risa Payant is a smouldering ember. Her work in arts administration is a support to our entire community; it is the quiet heat that nurtures an ecosystem.

As I’ve come to know her, I’ve learned that Risa possesses a limitless desire to contribute, and this trait is an accurate gauge of her ardent heart. She’s a woman of vision and spark, determined to shake down our arts scene and help us to build new creative mountains from pocket lint and change. Real change. She helps to reimagine this place and everyone’s place in it. She stretches boundaries with her unwavering support, respectful honesty, and bountiful kindness. She sets a high standard for community engagement. She takes no shit. These are a few of the many things that are Risa: arts advocate, dedicated patron, heart kindler, grant writer, proud mama, rich conversationalist, social activist, inspiring friend, adventurer, confidante, hard worker, community builder, rabble rouser, Fada dancer, belly laugher, and the list goes on. Risa is fierceness in heels with a smile that springs delight. Confident, collected, and eternally stylish, she’s an independent broad who keeps the home fires burning.

There’s a witchiness to Risa and her astonishing capability, and after all, witches are one of the ancient keepers of fire. Anyone in her radius knows that she is everywhere at once, wielding her super powers. These do not stem from the usual sources of money and status, but rather from her belief in the incendiary potential of art and ideas. And so she holds space for all of our potential as she goes about transforming our community, often unseen. Like no other, she offers that welcome kind of glow that will toast your marshmallow to perfection.

KC: What kinds of projects are you involved in right now?

I’m on the board of Lumsden Beach Camp. It occupied my summers from 1986 to 2001 so it was a huge part of my childhood. Right now, most of my attention is going towards helping develop the second year of our Artist-in-Residence program. There’s huge potential for a communion between creative practice, the natural world, and building community. Last summer visual artists Laura Hale and Terri Fidelak lived and worked on site for two months. This summer we’ve opened the format to allow for others to come onboard for short-term workshops. We’re interested in exploring how camp can support opportunities for collaboration between artists. We’re also hoping to pilot engagement with performing artists. This project has been exciting because it’s given me an opportunity to strengthen a mash up between two worlds that are extremely important to me. It’s pretty dreamy to see campers, staff, and volunteers have experiences with professional artists as part of regular programming, while artists are being influenced by the camp community and landscape.

I sit on the board of the Queen City Hub. The organization started as a co-working space, but last summer we zeroed in our mandate to be a point of connection for Regina change-makers. This meant leaving a fixed location in favour of creating programming that could be agile in responding to the desires of citizens and supporters. Right now we’re focussing on involvement in the upcoming municipal election. This is something I’m new to, but I’m looking forward to being a part of a team dedicated to facilitating dialogue and helping people get the access they need to make informed decisions. We’re also engaged in an ongoing discussion about, broadly, how to create welcoming spaces. These has led us through an exploration of urban planning, gentrification, the impacts of colonialism and poverty, Truth and Reconciliation, and more. It’s inspiring to feel as if we’re getting somewhere in terms of helping to nudge Regina in a more progressive direction.

I’m currently gearing up for the Regina Folk Festival. This summer will be my sixth as a Team Leader, running the beer gardens and beverage services with a team of fifty-ish volunteers. I was on staff for the festival in 2010 and fell in love with the team. When I moved on from my paid gig, I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to support the organization. The weekend is about so much more than the music. The event ends up being a confluence of so many varied and amazing aspects of Regina. I also volunteer as an Educator with Planned Parenthood Regina. Educators work with a broad sector of the community through everything from schools to programs like the Street Worker’s Advocacy Project (SWAP). Sexual agency is so important and I love talking to folks about topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of bodies, birth control, and STIs to things like sexuality, healthy relationships, and consent.

Last fall I dipped my toe into the freelance world. I’ve been labeling what I do “professional services for artists,” meaning I’m open to supporting whatever administrative work becomes cumbersome to creation. Practically this has meant assisting with grant applications, residency, exhibition, and project proposals, and refining Artist CVs. I feel really grateful when artists trust me to express their vision. It’s fulfilling to engage someone in a conversation about their work and then turn that into a professional piece of writing. Beyond that, I’ve been doing a lot of dreaming with friends and colleagues. I’m wrestling with drawing lines around what projects may be a fit in my day job and which are better done independently. I’m particularly excited about the potential in an idea I dreamed up with photographer and pal, Michael Bell. It’ll be my first foray into creating something of my own in almost ten years, so it’s both thrilling and terrifying to consider.

In my amateur creative life, I’ve been preparing to perform in my first year end show with FadaDance. I joined the beginner adult class in the fall after years of resisting. I’d sit every spring with the registration page open and then chicken out at the last minute. The thought of performing is incredibly terrifying for me, but the class has become a highlight of my week. I also spent much of the winter teaching myself embroidery. I’ve become obsessive about creating patterns and experimenting with stitches. Content wise, I seem to have found my niche in tacos and profanity. I’m obviously very mature.

KC: What’s your day job? What do you like about it? What’s challenging?

I’m the Executive Director at Common Weal Community Arts. We’re a provincial arts organization that links professional artists with communities to promote social change and cultural identity through creative expression. I’d been looking to make the leap to a leadership role when the job was posted last summer. It’s really rewarding to be at the helm of an organization that values similar things to myself: socially-engaged practice, ardent advocacy, social justice, supporting the agency of diverse voices, commitment to collaboration, multidisciplinary approaches, and a high degree of artistic merit.  I’m lucky to work alongside our Artistic Directors, Gerry Ruecker and Judy McNaughton (in our southern and northern locations, respectively). They bring determination, thoughtfulness, and vision to developing relationships with partners and participants across the province. Last year alone, Common Weal collaborated with 27 artists, artisans, and elders and 46 partner organizations to bring participatory arts experiences to Saskatchewan people in nearly 40 communities. This year we have major projects underway in the Prince Albert Correctional Centre, English River First Nation (located in Patuanak and Beauval), newcomer welcome centres in multiple urban and rural locations province-wide, the Victoria Hospital mental health ward, Carmichael Outreach, and Regina elderly care homes.

Common Weal has been doing amazing work for over 20 years, but I worry that our impact goes largely unnoticed. Right now, I’m focussing on increasing our profile. We’ve recently partnered with Go Giraffe Go, a local writing and design firm, to undergo a comprehensive brand audit and research project. Long-term, this will lead to a comprehensive three-year communications plan. That’s pretty exciting stuff for a strategy nerd like me. I’m eager to work towards further locating us within national and international community arts movements. I’m seeking funding for the team to attend the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam next spring and on the lookout for opportunities to write about and present on our work across Canada.

Capacity is a major challenge in the non-profit arts world. As Executive Director I’m expected to be an expert in human resources, bookkeeping, policy-making, fund development, programming, marketing and communications, sector research, partnership growth, risk management, and managing a Board of Directors. It’s a lot to juggle. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’ve spent much of the last ten-months getting my head wrapped around where the organization was at when I arrived. Next spring I’ll be writing multi-year grant applications to our core funders at the Saskatchewan Arts Board and Canada Council for the Arts. I’m genuinely excited for the opportunity  to think of the organization in the long-term and sink my teeth into where we’ll go from here.

KC: What’s important to you?

I have an urge to contribute. For me, that means committing significant time and energy to community building efforts that further grow our city. It’s important that I’m active in generating the types of action I want to see. We all have a responsibility to make a personal investment in the arts. The creative landscape of Saskatchewan is so vibrant, but it’s often woefully under supported. Outside of my professional capacity I’m committed to my roles as a volunteer, audience member, and patron. Everyone can support creation by seeking out opportunities to engage. Buy art by local artists and attend shows featuring bands you’ve never heard of and go to independent theatre productions. Invest in the things you know you’ll love and those things that are unknown or challenging. Big picture, it’s really about championing the contribution of people; their ideas and passions and potential. I think we could all use a little more of that. Not to mention the vital opportunity to see the world through a lens that differs from our own.

I tend to struggle with the legitimacy of my role in the arts ecology. There’s a dichotomy, for me, between creator and administrator. I revere creators and tend to view my own work as less integral or inspirational. In reality, the relationship between the two is interdependent. We need to recognize the distinct needs of arts administrators by building capacity and developing future leaders through dedicated mentorship and growth opportunities. There’s value in establishing a career in arts support roles. Grant writing may not be the sexiest part of the arts, but it’s important. Right?!

I’m constantly evolving in my relationship with myself as a parent. I work hard to recognize my daughters, Gaia and Ever, as individuals, independent from each other and from me. I try to cultivate curiosity and wildness in our home. There are so many different ways to be a mother. For me, it’s paramount that I don’t let myself be absorbed by the role. When I was pregnant I spent a lot of time dreaming about who I hoped my children would be. At some point I realised I wasn’t holding myself to the same high standards. Since I had no idea how to be a mother, I decided the best I could do would be to invest in my potential as a human being and hope to set an example. As a wee family of three, we’re hardly ever home. The girls are constantly being dragged to meetings and events. They get their clean clothes out of a pile on our basement floor and Skip the Dishes feeds us more than I do. I’ll never be much of a homemaker, but I hope that what we lack in domestic stability I make up for in new experiences and adventures.  I want my daughters to see me as an individual who is diligently invested in the things that matter to me. In turn, it’s important that I create the space for them to figure out what contribution they’ll make some day.

Other things that are important to me (in no particular order): the Heritage community, hot sauce, big books, eyebrows, my yellow couch, and creating forgotten manifestos with kindreds over good food and drink.

KC: What do you like most/least about Regina?

I grew up in Rouleau and I left as soon as I was able, moving to England when I was 16. I spent over ten years intermittently traveling and studying in Vancouver. There was a point where I would have vigorously denied any possibility that I’d end up living in Regina, but I couldn’t be happier to be putting down roots here. At least once a day I feel completely overwhelmed with gratitude to be surrounded by this community. The wealth of creativity here is an endless source of inspiration. There’s a pervasive feeling that what’s most important is to make things better. Regina folks seem to have collaboration in their bones, which results in the lack of ego and ownership that contributes to sweeping community-building efforts. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve always viewed Regina as a bit of an underdog. If Regina is an incubator for revolutionary practice, it’s because of the freedom that comes from being underestimated.

I have a love/hate relationship with how close the community is here. On the one hand, makes it impossible to burn bridges. It’s a wonderful gift to have to resolve conflict in ways that make it possible to continue living and working together. On the other hand, the introvert in me would relish more opportunities to be invisible. I’m also keenly aware that I live in a bubble filled with people who think a lot like me. There’s certainly a side to Regina that’s insidious and exclusionary.

KC: What is your impression of Saskatoon?

For me, the city is all of the amazing folks presenting exceptional arts programming in communities and schools. Before I started at the Saskatchewan Arts Board (in 2011) I’d only been to Saskatoon a handful of times. My role with the agency saw me visiting at least once a month. Organizations like Sum Theatre and PAVED Arts are doing really exciting work right now. And I think Saskatoon has the most enthusiastic educators I’ve ever met. I’m in awe of teachers like Monique Martin, Desiree Macauley, and Jennifer Gallays, who I’ve witnessed stretch themselves to bring the authentic arts experiences into the classroom.

As Saskatoon becomes familiar I find more and more excuses to visit. I’ll make the drive for live shows at The Broadway, Nuit Blanche YXE, shopping at Hardpressed, the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival and more. I don’t think Saskatoon has more going on than Regina, but it does feel as if the community is perhaps more supportive of what’s happening.  

KC: How do you survive the winters?

I love the prairies, but my biggest pet peeve about living here is how often we complain about the weather. Does complaining make you warmer? It’s beyond me.

I lived without seasons for a long time and missed them terribly. I’m fairly intense so perhaps climate extremes suit my sensibilities. There’s a beauty to the cold. Aesthetically, there’s nothing quite like seeing the entire city sparkle after the first snowfall. I love the way it feels to come in from the cold and feel the tingle of thawing flesh and a rush of colour to my cheeks. I love eyelash icicles and skating in the middle of downtown and bundling up for long walks. I love watching people rush inside in a flurry of snow and slowly unwrap themselves, layer upon layer. Winter is such a dramatic sensory experience and ongoing juxtaposition between comfort and discomfort. I really revel in that tension.

So I guess I survive the winters by embracing them. Don’t you have to love it a little bit to keep living here?

From the Proust Questionnaire: What is your greatest fear?

Being trapped by circumstance. I have unending anxiety around the constraints of stability and permanence or letting myself need anybody or anything. I’m almost pathologically independant. I think it’s about choice and needing to believe I always have a choice. Like Jeannette Winterson, “I am domestic, but only if the door is open.” I need to believe that no matter how firmly I appear to be putting down roots – relationships, my career, contractual obligations – I could walk away tomorrow. I suppose this makes me sound flakey, but I’m not. Give me the illusion of boundless choice and freedom and I’m incredibly committed.


Common Weal Community Arts -

Lumsden Beach Camp -

Queen City Hub -

Regina Folk Festival -

Planned Parenthood Regina -

FadaDance -