Not just flower power: Nelson exhibit celebrates intentional communities

The exhibit captures the adventurous and optimistic spirit of the back-to-land movement

Carol Ladas Gaskin says that in 1968 she learned more in one year than in all her previous 26 years.

"I learned to build buildings. I learned to stabilize A-frames. I learned to grow a garden and how to milk a cow. And I learned to be a potter."

She learned all those things, and many other rural skills, out of necessity after she and four urban friends moved to Winlaw, bought land and formed an intentional community they called the New Family.

"We bought enough acres to build our own homes by hand," she said, "and we actually also bought another 160 to save it from logging. And we still live there."

Ladas Gaskin was one of dozens who crowded into Gallery B at the Nelson Museum, Archives and Gallery for the opening of its new exhibit entitled Utopia Unveiled on July 5, curated by Jean-Philippe Stienne. The evening included the premiere screening of the film Utopia Unveiled: Intentional Communities in the Kootenays, produced by the museum.

The West Kootenay has long been a destination for people seeking to create intentional communities. In the early part of the 20th century, the Doukhobors came from Russia and created communal villages here. In the 1950s, a group of Quakers settled at Argenta to create a new cooperative society. In 1963, the Yasodhara Ashram was founded on the east shore of Kootenay Lake.

Those arrivals are included in photos and writings on the walls of the exhibit, along with displays of the influx of thousands of back-to-the-landers from counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s. Ladas Gaskin says she and other members of intentional communities of that time, many of whom initially had few practical skills, owed a lot to the Doukhobors, who were welcoming and helpful.

"It was not all about free love, drugs and flower power," states the printed introduction to the exhibit. "Many were highly political and well-educated with ideals for living an alternative lifestyle grounded in living off the land."

One of the many challenges faced by the newcomers was the opposition of many locals, whose lives and economy were dominated by logging, mining, and railroads. Newspaper columns and angry letters to the editor opposed the incursion of people whose values seemed alien and dangerous.

Now living part time in Seattle and part time in Winlaw, Ladas Gaskin has written an as-yet-unpublished memoir of her experiences at New Family. She is delighted by the Utopia Unveiled exhibit.

"I feel quite moved that after this many years, people are noticing that there was an evolution, and that it was possible for people to live together in community."

Monica Carpendale was 17-years-old when she arrived at a Slocan Valley commune with her parents and a group of their friends.

"It's really great to see it being honoured and part of our history and lives and stories," she said. "There was so much belief and value in how we were going to be as people, and how we were going to treat each other. It formed me, and it still forms me."

The commune members at first lived in a 20x20 foot cabin while a house was being built.

"There were six adults and six kids, and we all slept wall to wall upstairs ... there was no electricity. We had coal oil lamps, and we had an outhouse, and we had great parties."

On display at the exhibit were a piece of fabric art Carpendale created in her early days there, and a table she built.

She and her parents were involved in the construction of the Vallican Whole School, which began classes in 1973. The communal construction of this centre appears in the exhibit as a pivotal event in the history of the counterculture in the Slocan Valley to the present day. Women had a prominent role as planners and builders at the school, reflecting the untraditional role of women in the counterculture movement that, according to one of the display panels on the gallery wall, "included ecofeminism and environmentalism alongside the anti-war politics that drove many away from the United States."

One of Carpendale's compatriots in the intentional community adventure in the Slocan Valley was Jan Fraser.

"It was a real adventure," she said, "because it was something completely new, something we had never done before. And of course we were in love with everything and everybody."

Utopia Unveiled runs until Sept. 28 at the museum.

Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Portdanielpress since 2015.
Read more