The Ananda Arthouse

The Ananda Arthouse

That Joy

by Noreen Neu

July 7, 2009

Last fall we at SaskMusic started to hear rumblings from various members and artist friends about this fabulous live music venue in Forget, Saskatchewan. I had never heard of Forget, but as the reports of this wonderful performance room started to pile up, we decided we needed to inspect the place for ourselves.

Checking on their website ( we discovered that this place was a huge supporter of Saskatchewan talent, having presented many of our members - including Shifty Morgan, Bob Evans, Kim Fontaine, Marny Duncan-Cary, Patty Tutty, Denise Gerein and Eileen Laverty to name a few. They had also featured out-of-province acts such as Easily Amused, Ken Hamm, Reid Jamieson, Andy Sheppard and Cate Friesen. The next concert scheduled was The Fates, so a few of us squeezed into Julie’s little car and we set off across the prairie into the early fall darkness to investigate this phenomenon called Ananda. Our expectations were high - and we weren’t disappointed.

The village of Forget (French pronunciation) is barely visible from the highway, but we found turnoff and arrived with just enough time to find the Ananda Art House right where it would logically be (it’s an old rectory)…next door to the large Catholic Church which can be seen from anywhere in town. No street address necessary here!

Not being sure what an ‘Art House’ was, I quickly surveyed the place as we headed inside…artsy sign…artsy garden…in a not-so artsy village (population 39) in the middle of the bald prairie. Curious. So where was the audience coming from?

As we walked into the Arthouse, we were met with welcoming warmth and the feeling that something special was about to happen. Our hosts, Shannon and Don Shakotko, and Shannon's parents Hank and Gyda Nickel, helped us cozy into the tiny performance space with 40-some other music enthusiasts, and what followed was a wonderful something…a "something" I had only experienced a handful of times before, but is the “thing” that keeps me believing in the power of art. It’s those moments when time stops and a one-to-one connection is made between art and audience and, in the case of a live performance, it is when you collectively share that one-to-one connection with a bunch of other people - including the artist who is creating the art right in front of you. I just call it ‘the art experience’.

A lot has been written about this ‘experience’. Most of it from the perspective of either the artists and their work, or from the perspective of the art and the audience. Not so much about the shared experience where art, artist and audience come together in space and time.

Although we live in a society filled with beauty as commodity, where music is everywhere and where quality often takes a back seat to the flavour-of-the-month, there are still moments where art can and does make a meaningful connection with audience.

Following that evening in Forget I was filled with questions…How did this place come to be? Why would anyone move to this tiny village in the middle of ‘nowhere’ Saskatchewan? What motivated them to start something like Ananda? Why does it work?

I returned for another concert, and this time stayed to ask my questions. Don and Shannon were most generous with their story. The Ananda Art House is the dream child of Don and Shannon Shakotko - a dream that grew from their interest, passion and commitment to faith, art and leadership. As with many of us, the road of life is long and winding, and we often find our dream is some place completely different than we first imagined. For Don and Shannon, their collective dream took form after they had both travelled individual roads well into their adult lives.

As Shannon described, “It started (for me) with a frustration with the limitations - perceived or otherwise - placed on the way I could express my faith. Words, in particular, seemed to be limiting, or else they were so ‘loaded’ that it was hard for me or anyone else to get past that. I found the most joy when I was expressing my faith through artistic measures, and it led me to think of the possibilities.”

She continues, “Don and I met at Caronport, Saskatchewan. We were both working at the (bible) college there and we started having conversations about ‘ways of seeing’, about starting an interdisciplinary school that applied art to the three Rs." After Caronport, they went in different directions for a while, completed a couple of Masters degrees and a PhD, later got married, and then moved to Maryfield (on the Manitoba border), where Don was the Principal of the K - 12 school. "We wanted to explore alternatives in education - ways of keeping small schools vibrant and open."

Don and Shannon committed to staying three years, with plans to then open an Arthouse. After realizing that locations on BC’s Sunshine Coast and Thunder Bay were not quite right, fate stepped in.

Shannon explains, “Our three years were almost up. I was starting to feel a bit anxious. Then, one Friday when I went to the mail I pulled out one of those weekly advertiser papers, and I read the front-page headline: Forget Rectory something something something. I usually just chucked that kind of stuff into the recycling bin, but the picture and town’s name intrigued me enough to take it home to read.”

Don read it too…they looked Forget up on a map, and the next day - a rainy Sunday – they set out on a drive. A homemade "For Sale" sign stood in front, and the house was barely visible through the overgrown yard. Knocking on the door, the owners took Don and Shannon for a tour. Shannon remembers, “When we got back into the car, we were silent all the way to the highway. After driving a bit, we looked at each other and said, ‘That's it. That's the place.’

They bought the rectory without jobs, or even the promise of one, guided by one of Don’s favourite Zen sayings: “Leap, and the net will appear.”

With a philosophy of “If you want direction, you get moving”, they did just that. Don received the high school principalship in nearby Carlyle, and they worked steady on the place for a year. Shannon's mom and dad moved out from the west coast - Gyda becoming chief chef, and Hank foreman of construction.

At this point, they were still imagining how their vision would be fleshed out. They did feel certain about a few things: applying for and receiving non-profit status, so Ananda Arthouse officially came into being. ‘Ananda’ is an old Celtic term meaning "that joy, without which, the whole universe would fall apart."

To help with the vision, they collected friends from around the continent to form an advisory board. The question being, how does one explore the relationship between art, faith, and leadership? How do they relate, and where do they overlap?

So Don and Shannon had found the “right place”, spent a year renovating, became a non-profit, applied for B&B status, and wondered what to do to get things rolling while they were figuring out the details of the big picture.
House concerts seemed like a wonderful way to introduce themselves to the community and a way of getting "out there" right away. As Shannon describes, “The paint was still drying when we held our first concert. And we haven't looked back.”

Don talked to me about his interest in the similarities between performance (art, music, etc) and leadership. The performance part of both good leadership and good music performance is key to achieving the fullest potential and meaningful connection. This relationship or rapport of the creator with the object of creation while in the act of creating it is explored through a branch of philosophy called “poietics”. That rapport with the making of the art is something that all artists understand – with performing artists it is also something that they sometimes get to experience and share with their audience during a performance. For many artists and audience alike that is the ultimate…it's ”that joy”.

As singer/songwriter Kim Fontaine recently described in a radio interview with Calgary’s California 103, “I still refer to Ananda as the best gig in Saskatchewan. Imagine a population of 39 (including the dogs, according to Shannon), where each night I played to about 40 of the most wonderful people I had ever met. They closed their eyes and hung on every word I sang. It was surreal - I have never performed to such an attentive audience. Generally when I close my eyes and sing, I hear the din of the room, but performing in Forget was like nothing I had ever experienced. The connection with the audience was unreal. Shannon and Don were the most wonderful hosts and they were extremely generous. If the opportunity to play Ananda ever comes again, I will be out there in a heartbeat.”

In the case of the Ananda Arthouse “that joy” is spreading. Not only does the community support the place by buying out the concert series ($12.50 of the $15 ticket price going straight to the artists), it also comes out to volunteer and support Arthouse fundraisers including the Forget Summer Arts Festival, started last year as a one-day event featuring music and art.

This year the festival expands to two days. Local artist and volunteer Laura Herman attended last year and says, “I knew I would enjoy Shifty Morgan and Marny Duncan-Cary, but I was also hoping to hear some new sounds, some of the fine live music that I often miss living so far from the urban clubs. Sure enough, there were some great discoveries for me, like House of Doc (from just across the line in Manitoba) and Little Miss Higgins from Nokomis. There’s nothing like hearing your own stories sweetly sung over just the right groove.”

Laura continues, “My son took part in a songwriting workshop with (Pense’s) Bob King, and contributed some ideas to the resulting song, ‘Mosquito Pie.’ Really, though, I don’t remember any mosquitoes attending the festival. Maybe I was just too wrapped up in the music to notice.

Laura and her daughter volunteered for the event, and noted the spirit of community. “As volunteers, we were among the privileged few who got to tent at the site, waking up the morning after the festival to the incredible tranquillity of dawn on the plains of Forget. This year, on-site camping is available to all.”

The 2006 Forget Saskatchewan Festival will feature Ken Hamm and Donna Konsorado (BC) - blues, the Jack Semple Band (Regina) - rock/funk, Crofter's Revenge (Regina) - folk/Celtic, Emaline Delapaix & the Delistocracy (AU, USA, Canada) - roots/jazz, Gary Ray and the Soo Line (Regina) - country, Sturgis Trash (Saskatoon) - alternative rock, The Whistlepigs (MN) - bluegrass, Anthony Kelly (Rocanville) - country, and Codie Prevost (Archerville) - country. At the time of this publication the arts and crafts program was still being confirmed.

Since the Shakotkos decided that Forget was “the place”, several others have made the same decision and moved into the community. Don has been mayor for a year, and Shannon bought the old hall for $250 and is gradually turning it into a café/bookstore, with a larger performance space for the concert series. They have also initiated the Ananda Arthouse Arts Award - a small bursary awarded to a local grade 12 student pursuing a career in the arts.

Shannon and Don love the conversations they have with artists about writing and inspiration and what makes for a “good room”. As for the next development at the Arthouse, there are so many possibilities…artists’ retreats, conferences, workshops, site-specific art projects…things could go in a variety of directions, but there is one thing the directors of this unique Saskatchewan project are clear about…”the soul needs nurturing, and live music is essential nurturing like ‘that joy’.“

By Noreen Neu for SaskMusic. Originally published Summer 2006.

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