Individually, they’re passionate and dedicated and committed to their community.
Together, they’re unstoppable.
Stephen O’Shea and Leanne Ewen made it a double win for the Arts Council of New Westminster at Thursday night’s Platinum Awards, as O’Shea picked up the Citizen of the Year award and Ewen earned the Bernie Legge Cultural Award. O’Shea is the arts council’s executive director and Ewen is the president of its board.
“It is incredible that with these Platinum Awards, that Leanne wins the Bernie Legge Award and I win the Citizen of the Year Award. It really speaks to the health of the arts council and the strength of the arts community,” O’Shea said, speaking to the Record Friday morning. “Our mandate is bringing community together through the arts, and I think we do that every single day. To be recognized together is extremely meaningful.”
Ewen, who admitted she was still “floating on a cloud” from the night before, agreed.
“I’m particularly thrilled for the arts council; we’ve worked so hard. We’ve created a place and space for the arts in our city, and for the arts council,” she said. “I think we’ve also made a difference in the lives of our community. … We’re using this for a bigger dream than just the arts; it’s to bring community together and create connections that we so desperately need in our society.”
O’Shea was still reeling from the surprise of hearing his own name announced for Citizen of the Year.
“I’m blown away, I’m amazed, and I’m extremely honoured with this recognition. I’m overwhelmed, that’s truly how I feel,” O’Shea said, admitting it took him quite awhile to collect himself and get up on stage when his name was announced.
Earning the top citizen honours is particularly special for O’Shea as a relative newcomer to the city; he moved here just five years ago with his wife, Becky Ninkovic, and their then-one-year-old daughter.
“To come from the community I was previously in, Abbotsford, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of the opportunities New Westminster has offered me. It has been incredible to be so wholly embraced by this community,” O’Shea said. “There’s a real openness in this community. It touches my heart to know I’ve been so quickly and warmly embraced, and completely embraced, by this community. I think it speaks to the strength of the character of New Westminster that people are included here, all people. I feel like anyone that comes can be woven into the fabric of this community.”
O’Shea began his working career here with Fraserside Community Services in its Horizons program for adults with developmental disabilities, with a mandate to build inclusion.
“To be given an Active Living Guide and told, ‘Go be in the community,’ it was a perfect fit for me for the job, and a perfect fit to discover New Westminster right off the bat, how the community functions and what it has to offer,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to discover it and build relationships with this community.”
Those relationships, he said, helped him slide into the job he took on in 2015, as executive director of the arts council.
“I knew what artists were looking for, and it made a big difference. It helped me get a sense of what this community aspires to be,” he said.
O’Shea is proud of new arts council events such as Music by the River, which has grown into a major family event each summer at Westminster Pier Park. He attributes a huge part of his success with the arts council, and the arts council’s growth, to his partnership with Ewen.
“She is a tireless volunteer as president. She has been with me every step of the way in my time as executive director,” he said. “It’s been just incredible to work alongside her.”
Ewen, in turn, said working with O’Shea has been a special partnership right from the beginning.
“It’s the kind of relationship that doesn’t come along very often. We just connected right away on a really deep level,” she said. “We build on each other and we bring those ideas to the board, and then the board jumps in with their ideas, and then the members and the artists and the community and city council. … Oh my gosh, it’s like concentric circles.”
Ewen said O’Shea has been the driving force behind all the positive strides the arts council has taken over the last few years.
“His passion has taken the ideas of the arts council and made them come alive,” she said. “It’s been just incredible to work with him.”
But she’s quick to note that O’Shea’s commitment to the community extends far beyond the arts council.
“Really, he’s everywhere,” she said with a laugh. “He so deserves that Citizen of the Year award.”
O’Shea said he’s been pleased to be able to take on some behind-the-scenes roles in the same spirit of building community. Among those roles, he serves on the board of directors of PechaKucha New West, which has grown into a thriving speaker series with 21 events under its belt to date.
“I’m really proud that we’re able to showcase some amazing people that live in this community,” he said.
He’s also the volunteer chair of the city’s public art advisory committee, a job that’s near and dear to his heart.
“I think public art needs champions in our city, and people to really believe in the grand statements of those pieces,” he said, citing works such as the WOW Westminster sculpture at Pier Park, the Furled Trail bus stop in Queensborough, and the interactive Floralume at the Front Street staircase.
O’Shea is quick to note there’s no way he’d be able to devote so much time to the community without the support of his wife, who is an artist working out of 100 Braid Street Studios.
“She’s so patient, so understanding and so supportive of me,” O’Shea said. “I really could not be the person that I am without the support and the fantastic mother that she is.”
Meanwhile, O’Shea has a new goal: to earn himself the “Father of the Year” nod next year from the soon-to-be-six-year-old Vera.
“When I was up watching the Hyack Parade last year, my daughter turned to me and she asked, ‘How come my friend Violet gets to be in the parade?” O’Shea said with a laugh – noting that the friend in question is, of course, Violet Cote, a.k.a. daughter of Mayor Jonathan Cote. “My daughter turned to me and said, ‘Dad, next year, you’re going to make sure I’m in the parade with you.’”
He didn’t know quite how he was going to make that happen – but now he does, since the Citizen of the Year gets a chance to take part.
“I’m just thrilled because now I’ll get that opportunity to be in the parade,” he said with a laugh.
Platinum Awards are nice and all.
But earning Vera’s approval?