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'Spirit of creativity living large' at virtual Steampunk fest

Pandemic forces 10th anniversary event online; A flying time machine, fairy garden and art exhibits can be visited in-person in Coldwater

If not for COVID-19, next weekend would see Coldwater transformed into a steampunk Dreamland.

For the past nine years, people from across Ontario and beyond have gathered in the scenic Severn Township village to celebrate local art, creativity and fantasy worlds.

This year, the creativity and celebration of local art, artisans and the Industrial Age fantasy genre continues with a twist: it’s all online.

“It’s really important that people don’t come to the festival this year,” says Suzy Burtenshaw, festival organizer.

But since the in-person festival — vendors, art exhibits, costume contest and more — is cancelled, Burtenshaw says they’ve had the chance to take steampunk online.

“Because we’ve had this opportunity to take a pause, and that pause has allowed us to work on some permanent installations in town, that are going to be on display for that whole entire month.”

A flying time machine, fairy garden and art exhibits by featured artists Karen Taul, Sarah Pickard and Emily Pickard will be available to explore.

These installations will be open for physically distanced admiration from today until Sept. 2— complementing the festival’s busy online headquarters.

Burtenshaw and a team of more than 70 volunteers have been hard at work preparing a sprawling array of online opportunities for fans to show off costumes, create art, and celebrate Steampunk.

Each year, the festival has a theme — this year, “Gaslamp Fantasy” celebrates fantastical creatures like Dragons and Faeries.

Fans are encouraged to join up on the festival’s Facebook page, and YouTube channel, where a daily schedule of livestreams show off local art, history, and steampunk lore.

The annual costume contest, a popular part of the event, will still happen: people can submit videos and photos of themselves in their steampunk and fantasy attire online.

The “Sawbones Society,” a group of long-time festival collaborators and representatives, produced a series of short videos, exploring stories of the group of “malpracticing medics.”

The Sawbones Society videos are only one element of the usual performances that will be going online. Ghost stories, musical demos and performances by local musician Dylan Lock will pepper a robust schedule of online events.

Burtenshaw acknowledges how tough it is for many of the usual performers and vendors to miss the festival’s big turnout — usually around 10,000 people stream in to Coldwater.

“We are sorry that we will not be seeing our performers, entertainers and vendors. Over 10 years, a lot of them have been the same, and a lot of people look forward to seeing them,” says Burtenshaw.  

“Their industry has been hit hard by this. We hope to see them next year.”

And next year’s return to in-person Steampunk fun is already in the works — Burtenshaw and the Steampunk Festival plan each year 14 months in advance.

“We have to write grants, we have to fundraise — it takes 14 months of planning,” says Burtenshaw, who began the festival with her friend Deb Tice.

“There was no summer festival in Coldwater and there was no art festival. We were looking for something that could be unique. Steampunk came on our radar, and we were like ‘this is it.’”

With help from the Department of Canadian Heritage and many local businesses, the festival took off.

Now, it’s grown to become a premier destination for fans of the genre — or anyone looking for a safe space to express their creativity and personality and enjoy fantastic art.

“It really is a day where you can be anything you want to be. You can come here and you can be free.”

And while the festival won’t be bringing in crowds to Coldwater’s historic downtown this year, it’s sure to bring heaps of its creativity and artistic freedom to fans online.

“The spirit of creativity,” says Burtenshaw, “is living on, large.”

You can find the full set of events on the Coldwater Steampunk Festival’s website.