Michelle MacCallum [Michael Stanley]

Michelle MacCallum

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Profile | by Julie Bull

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When I called Michelle MacCallum to chat, she just came in from a walk in the woods where she was foraging watercress. We talked about the beautiful abundance that PEI has to offer and just how amazing it is to see our plant relatives come back to life in spring. I thought for a moment that spring may be Michelle’s favourite season until she said: “I go to the beach as my job in the summertime so for now I wanted to spend some time in the woods before beach weather is in full swing.

“I was disconnecting from myself and from nature all winter. I was losing myself in novels or whatever there was to stream online. I had my art and that was a beautiful thing, but I wasn’t spending time outdoors, which is important to me. Beach and nature are my medicine,” she says.

Many of us are familiar with operating from the mind but Michelle’s reminds us that, “we need to pay attention to all parts of our being, not just spend all our time in our heads. When we spend too much time in the mental realm, we can lose our balance and find it hard to get our feet planted on the ground.”

She quietly chuckled and said, “I realized I should take my own medicine and spend some time in the woods.”

Though we are all dealing with our individual challenges and obstacles, Michelle also talked about the community impacts and difficulties that are arising because of COVID-19. “Collectively we are feeling the impacts of the pandemic and the forced interruptions in our social interactions. This has lots of implications for our mental health. Let’s be kind and gentle with ourselves and each other as we move forward.” 

Michelle is the Director of Cultural Development at Innovation PEI, and I could feel her smiling over the phone when she said her job is about “supporting other people in getting their voices heard.” 

Before joining the provincial government, Michelle had a career in the not-for-profit sector. Working for Women’s Network at the time, there was a lot of changes happening federally with funding; major attention was being put on sexual violence because of a high profile national case, and many people were coming forward to tell their stories. Michelle’s generosity held space for people to share those stories but the vicarious trauma of bearing witness to such experiences can be difficult and daunting. It was the perfect storm of circumstances that led to her taking a short break from that work.

“I do like a good challenge!”

Michelle did a six month leave to help facilitate the arts grants with the PEI government, which led to longer term work in the creation of the PEI Culture Action Plan, and eventually to a permanent position. Driven to cultivate healthy and vibrant communities to live, play and work, Michelle draws attention to the structures and systems of inequity and injustice.

“It’s very important to me to give back to the community and it’s also important that I learn to take good care of myself.”

Michelle’s contributions to the arts on PEI certainly are not just in her day job. She is a visual artist who paints beautiful images of the natural world. “Landscapes are my bread and butter, and most people know my art as landscape art.

“Art is a language; it’s a way to communicate from and to the mind and heart and my favorite kind of art to make is ‘bad’ art. You know, the kind where you just throw a bunch of things together and see what happens?

“Art is fun. Art is play.”

Like most artists I talk to, Michelle used to struggle a bit with imposter syndrome as an artist who didn’t attend art school. “With age comes wisdom and I see how the imposter can help propel us forward when we’re younger. And we need to learn not to give it too much airtime by reminding ourselves that we are enough. Our art is enough.”

Regardless of our artistic or other practices, Michelle has wise words for us all: “Don’t try to be something or someone that you aren’t: be true and authentic to who you are. Be you. Be seen.” Or better yet: “Let your freak flag fly!”

Julie Bullprofile