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Guiding lights: The Vital Importance of Mentorship in Pursuit of a Career in the Arts

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

By Lia Pereira From epic novels to blockbuster movies, there are always those special characters who guide the heroes on their journey: the mentors. Whether formal mentors or influential leaders, when it comes to a career in the arts, we all have someone who was essential to our growth. This month I bring you the names and stories of seven terrific professionals from our city and how their mentors have helped them enrich Calgary's art scene. Opening Doors Having a mentor who is already established in the industry can open doors that would, otherwise, remain closed. But it's not just about making connections - mentors can also help us hone our craft and develop our skills. The Immigrant Arts Mentorship Program (IAMP) Program at ICAI helps pair newcomers to the arts scene in Calgary with established arts professionals, providing an immediate connection with someone in the community and bridging the connection gap in the Arts in our city. Perpetual (Perpie)_Life is a performer, artist, and Grant Programs Specialist for CADA who took part in the IAMP program in 2022 and developed her skills and connections under the care of her mentor. Perpetual explained “Mentorship is the world map, the guidance for artists or arts administrators to navigate the new community. Arts is all about community and we need to get in this community, we need to get to know people experienced to get us by the hand and walk with us.” Perpetual arrived in Calgary in 2019 and despite having a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Lagos, in Nigeria, she explained that it took her a while to find her peers among the arts and it wouldn’t be possible without arts organizations. “Generally speaking, it is very hard for newcomers to navigate the arts. When they arrive, they’re looking for a job, they’re looking for survival and they end up in survival jobs and give up on arts. I thought I would never be back on arts,” remembered the artist. It was through arts organizations that Perpetual connected with arts professionals and, from there, she says, everything happened very quickly. “My mentor Meghan Goguen, whom I met through the IAMP program, provided very valuable connections for performances, introduced me to arts administrators, and wrote reference letters. She stood in the gap - speaking on my behalf and being in my concert halls. She was amazing.”, mentioned Perpetual. This kind of guidance and support is invaluable, especially for newcomers who are still figuring out their place in the industry and have no idea where to start from. Settlement agencies and mentorship programs play a key role in the careers of immigrants who are unaware of the opportunities the industry offers but have a lot to contribute.

A Two-Way Street In just a year and a half, Ciza Zoya became involved with four mentors from different organizations and each one was essential for her settlement and professional growth, providing valuable networking connections and guidance, encouraging her to invest in the Calgary art scene, and bringing her to cross paths with Rozsa Foundation, where she became the most recent team member as Storytelling Associate. For Ciza, having mentors was essential to help her overcome some barriers that many newcomers face, such as social anxiety, language barriers, and the lack of opportunities due to having no networking or support system. "My mentor fueled my networking skills; she helped me to get to know people. Being in events and mentioning her name was essential to building connections and making myself seen by others," explains Ciza. As Ciza discovered, mentorship is a two-way street. As a mentee, it's essential to be open to feedback and willing to put in the work to improve, and Patricia Peixoto has her own path as proof. The Brazilian photographer shared her expectations with her IAMP mentor Samuel Obadero, and discovered skills that resulted in the creation of the Tha Block collective. The project was inspired by both, the mentor and mentee's personal experiences. "Tha Block is a platform for artists to explore the arts stream, to experiment and find who they are as artists, and to grow with the city and with the province," said Samuel. Patricia also pointed out how mentorship had a decisive impact on her life and settlement in Calgary. "I was lucky to have him as a mentor, he cared, and because of him I now have a new family; the collective. Before I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but he challenged me to go further, to pursue myself as an artist," she said.

The Mentor Benefit

Indeed, the benefits of mentorship are twofold: mentees can receive invaluable guidance and support, while mentors can gain a sense of fulfillment by helping others succeed. Samuel, who is a newcomer himself, had his own mentors to inspire and guide him through the community. "I would be nothing without my mentors. I am who I am because of my mentors because they were kind enough to mentor me. Ken Lima-Coelho has had a huge impact on my life. He is very inspiring and despite playing so many roles, he found time to mentor me at the very beginning, when I had just arrived here” said Sam. The joys of being a mentor are also pointed out by Ciza’s mentor Aldona B, who received valuable lessons that allowed her to grow self-confident and value her creativity and skills. "I had so many amazing mentors growing up but one that sticks with me is my 5-grade teacher. I had just arrived in Canada, did not speak one word of English, and she would treat me as the other kids; she never made me feel stupid but would always challenge me, helping me with my confidence. Thanks to her and my ESL teacher I managed to learn English in a year," remembers Aldona. The multi-talented writer, photographer, publicist, and communications specialist runs the Brand Aldona B Creative and aims to use her extensive background in Arts and Communications to mentor other women and provide the opportunity to give back to the community, "I believe we have amazing programs like IAMP that are instrumental, with great potential and room to grow, and that we are on the right path." Aldona believes that everybody should do both sides of the mentorship spectrum and, when asked about her relationship with her mentee, she answers with a smile of gratitude, "Ciza and I have obviously become friends through this experience, I see her being in my life for a long time. I'm so proud of her, she has done amazing things, and my time with her was so special, I just absolutely love it."

Finding Your Mentor

Of course, mentorship doesn't have to be a formal arrangement. It can be as simple as reaching out to someone you admire in the industry and asking for advice, as explained by the Poet, Spoken Word Artist, Public Speaker, and Performer Adetola “aloT of Poetry” Adedipe. The Nigerian-born artist built her career by connecting with other artists from the community and seeking opportunities and guidance. "Bethel Afework introduced me to spoken word and art communities, MelVeeX included me in youth programs, arts projects, and shows, and Wakefield Brewster helped me with my confidence and performance opportunities," explains Adetola. Starting off as a member of The University of Calgary Spoken Word Club, the artist is constantly developing her career and exploring putting herself out there at poetry festivals and performances, as Arts facilitator for Youth, and having her poetry published by magazines. Her energy, creativity and discipline also led her to found Poetic Designers, an artist branding company, with the goal of using her experience to help other artists find their voice in the online marketing world. Adetola is a rising star and her journey shows that dedication, passion, and effort are essential for an artist and that by connecting with mentors the possibilities are greater. By actively seeking mentors, artists and arts managers can navigate uncharted territories, sharpen their skills through trial and error and get effective guidance and support even when they don't have an academic background in the industry, as pointed out by Smitha Varghese. Smitha is the programs manager for ICAI and supports mentees and mentors for the IAMP and the other ICAI programs. An Electronics & Communication Engineer by education, Smitha was associated with the arts as a performer and spoken artist, as well as a volunteer arts manager for plays, street performances, and a curator, but was only in Calgary that she got the opportunity to do what she loves for a living. Through Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) she learned about The Shoe Project and became connected with the arts industry. Despite not being in a mentorship program, she got to know people that took her on as a mentee, guiding and sharing experiences and opportunities; like Barb Howard from the Shoe Project and Toyin Oladele from ICAI, where she started as a volunteer and later was hired into her current position. “There are hidden gems in this city; people that have skills and passion but get lost because they come here without a degree and don't stand a chance. That's why the Rozsa Foundation and ICAI programs providing education and mentorship are so important,” said Smitha.

Through mentorship and arts management programs, aspiring professionals gain access to a wealth of knowledge, learn from the experiences of seasoned experts, and develop essential skills needed for success in their chosen fields. Together, mentorship and volunteering serve as catalysts for personal and career growth, empowering individuals to reach their full potential and make meaningful contributions to their chosen fields.

The career journey of Celina Vides reflects how mentoring and volunteering are essential for an immigrant's career. The El Salvadorian engagement specialist, consultant, arts administrator, writer, and photographer worked and volunteered for various festivals and organizations in Calgary. Like many other immigrants, she had to postpone her career in the arts in order to make a living.

Enrolled in a double major in Philosophy and Literature in El Salvador, it took Celina a few years to stabilize financially and complete the process to transfer credits and finish her studies in Calgary. She needed to study while working for different industries and, was by volunteering with different organizations that she built her career in Arts. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities I had but I’m pretty sure if ICAI had existed I would’ve become an artist immediately”, she highlights.

All of these incredible professionals display a deep passion for our city and the continuous effort to make the arts community thrive. They also all recognize the incomparable value that mentoring occupies in their professional trajectory and in Calgary's arts mosaic.

So, if you're a newcomer to the arts industry, seek out a mentor and start building a relationship that can help you achieve your goals. If you're an experienced professional, consider becoming a mentor and passing on your knowledge and expertise to this new generation of artists and arts managers.


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