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Hidden talents

Fibre art, gay choir singing (and debating), dog agility and a rising citizen star

Campus and Community

By Mandy Cook

The year – and decade! – is coming to a close, which means the Gazette is once again offering its year-end glimpse into the outside lives of some members of the Memorial community.

Read on to learn about some of the “extracurricular” activities a few folks in the Office of the Vice-President (Research), the Faculty of Business Administration, Student Life and Facilities Management get up to outside of regular work hours.

Nic Kuzmochka

A research assistant in the Office of the Vice-President (Research), Nic Kuzmochka loves a microphone.

A member of the St. John’s Gay Men Chorus and a board member of the Newfoundland Speech and Debate Union as well as a debate coach, Mr. Kuzmochka says both activities are performance-based. Singing, he says, brings him “joy.”

“It’s a way of using and feeding that creativity that can’t always be satisfied in academia or in an office,” said Mr. Kuzmochka, who originally hails from Ottawa, Ont. “When I am able to strike that balance, to really feel creative and expressive and perform, I feel the most myself.”

Nic Kuzmochka, second from left, with the St. John’s Gay Men’s Choir at St. James Church.
Photo: Submitted

The St. John’s Gay Men Chorus both rehearses and performs at St. James’ United Church, as well as other venues.

They’ve just wrapped up their holiday concerts – he says their arrangement of “The First Noel,” which they sang with Newfound Sound was particularly moving and beautiful – and will launch into rehearsals of new material for the spring in the first week of the New Year.

Mr. Kuzmochka says they regularly perform at Pleasantview Towers in St. John’s and at Pride events, of course.

Nic Kuzmochka, at left holding banner, and friends at a local Pride parade.
Photo: Submitted

“Last season we did “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” which as a community of queer folks, really subscribes to the idea of holding each other up and being family for one another,” he said. “I think songs like that are really important to recognizing our positions and history as queer folk, and making sure we’re making space and community with queer folk and allies.”

When he’s not creating melodies with his fellow choir members (or belting out showtunes, another favourite), Mr. Kuzmochka is helping to develop the provincial debate scene.

An activity he picked up as an undergraduate student, he decided he wanted to cultivate debate among young people after he graduated from university.

As a board member of the Newfoundland Speech and Debate Union, he coaches, offers training and works to make tournaments and competitions more accessible to high school students.

“As they become more confident in their debating, they become able to make friends and, I hope, really build a community.” — Nic Kuzmochka

And while he says the performance aspect of debate – developing a character who makes an argument for something you might not necessarily agree with on a personal level – is what he enjoys the most about it, he gets great satisfaction from witnessing the students’ growth in confidence.

“Seeing some of the kids start out quiet and reserved and grow from giving a one-minute speech to delivering really impassioned eight-minute speeches is just astounding. As they become more confident in their debating, they become able to make friends and, I hope, really build a community and a group of people that they can feel good with.”

Dr. Dianne Ford

Dr. Dianne Ford, a faculty member in the Faculty of Business Administration, says her experiences and education in dog training influences her research and class lessons in human resources management, organizational behaviour and leadership.

Welsh springer spaniel Baxter in action.
Photo: Submitted

“A major component of these courses is the concept of motivating others and getting performance from others,” she said.

“It may include shaping behaviours and reducing or extinguishing inappropriate behaviours in organizations. Behavioural adjustment training is the same across humans and animals.”

Dr. Ford, whose hometown is Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has been training, competing and coaching in the sport of agility since 1994.

She’s competed in most Canadian provinces as well as in England and Wales; she’s coached people in the sport from coast-to-coast in this province, including at the Newfoundland Athletic Dog Association, Inc., a not-for-profit club she co-founded when she moved here, and around the world.

“It is fun to run with my dog and see what he can do.” — Dr. Dianne Ford

Dr. Ford says she was first attracted to agility because it combined elements of the three sports she had competed in previously: dance, soccer and equestrian events.

“Agility amalgamates all three previous sports: ground speed/footwork like soccer, proprioception, timing and co-ordination with others like dance, and training and working with an animal, plus the strategy and understanding of lines, proper performance and timing of cues in the sport, like equestrian,” she said. “To this day, I love how the sport continually evolves, which challenges me to continue to learn and improve.”

And she’s had great success. Her Welsh springer spaniel, Kelsey, was on Canada’s 2014 Top Dog list, was the first agility dog in Newfoundland and Labrador to qualify for national level competition and is in the Top 4 in her breed in the history of the sport in the country.

Dr. Dianne Ford in competition with Jenga.
Photo: Submitted

Her current dog, Jenga the English cocker spaniel, competes at the national level and has travelled with Dr. Ford to England to train with some of the world’s top handlers.

“This past year, we have started to focus on trying out for Team Canada to represent our country at world-level competitions, such as the European Open and World Agility Organization,” Dr. Ford said. “He has had podium results, and has on occasion beat teams who are currently represented Canada at worlds. This spring at the Atlantic Cup, we placed first. Both second and third-place teams (from Ontario and Quebec) are on the 2020 Team Canada.”

Asked what she likes most about the sport, she says it’s hard to “pick one” thing.

Dr. Dianne Ford and Jenga take their place at the top of the podium at an Atlantic regional competition.
Photo: Submitted

“The friendships that I have made locally, nationally and internationally add joy to my life. It is fun tackling a challenging course. It is fun to run with my dog and see what he can do. It is also fun to watch the videos of him afterwards – I don’t get a chance to spectate with him as he’s too fast for that. When I’m at a workshop, there’s a lot of running and even more laughing; it is simply so much fun!”

You can learn more about Dr. Ford’s involvement in agility on her blog, which has readership from all over the world and was a major factor for safety changes in multiple countries in the use of a particular piece of equipment.

Jen Crowe

When Jen Crowe isn’t planning the next can’t-miss event as the student leadership development co-ordinator in the Student Experience Office (including the upcoming Superpowers student-leadership conference on Jan. 11), she’s spending countless volunteer hours as the chair of Happy City St. John’s, a non-profit organization that informs and facilitates civic issues in the province’s capital city.

As part of her Happy City work, Jen Crowe can be heard and seen on local media.
Photo: Submitted

And when she’s not doing that, she is part of the team that brings the popular TEDxStJohn’s event, a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth sharing” to town.

It’s the kind of work you’d expect of someone who did a master of public administration degree. Ms. Crowe says she’s most interested in discovering what goes into creating a place where people want to live, work and stay.

“I think that part of the equation is ensuring that citizens are engaged – and listened to – during the decision-making processes that affect them the most,” said the St. John’s native.

She is also interested in involving everyone in the process of informed decision-making, not just those who show up at public meetings.

“There are lots of barriers to peoples’ involvement – and it’s easy to make decisions based off of the views of the loudest voices.”

Jen Crowe facilitates a Happy City St. John’s discussion.
Photo: Submitted

To facilitate accessible dialogue, Happy City is currently conducting a survey to better understand the barriers newcomers face when moving to neighbourhoods in St. John’s.

She’s also focused on how the local can impact the global. She says one major way to limit our carbon footprint in relation to climate change is to examine the public transit system in the province’s capital. Metrobus recently announced it will be offering rides for youth age 11 and under as of March 2020.

Ms. Crowe says this will demonstrate to young people they can get where they need to go without a vehicle. That, she says, paired with a more regional model of transit – bussing from CBS to work or school at Memorial – could have “big impacts” for climate change mitigation, city planning and everyone’s bottom line.

The theme of sharing information creatively continues in Ms. Crowe’s life with the TEDxStJohns event – a speaking event that received 120 applications last year. She says there is “power” in shared experience and that the TEDx format is digestible, engaging and inspiring.

Jen Crowe, far right, at the TEDxStJohns event with members of the TED team.
Photo: Submitted

“Speakers are selected based on their idea and go through an 8-10 week process of working with the programming team to take that idea and make it into a captivating and entirely memorized 12-18 minute talk,” she said. “This is overwhelming and pretty much everyone “quits” once.”

Part of Ms. Crowe’s role is to help the speakers through those moments of self-doubt and ground them in the power of their idea that they will share with a global audience.

She says watching people develop their talks from beginning to end in two short months is an “amazing experience” and that the process has launched non-profit organizations, careers in public speaking and political campaigns.

“I just feel grateful to be along for the ride!”

Ann Browne

Ann Browne, associate vice-president (facilities) says her work at Memorial and her love of crafting are different, but similar, too.

An example of Ann Browne’s needle felting work, titled Underwater Seascape, with cotswold and merino wools, plus silk and silk pods.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The concentration, the math, the ability to stay focused and work alone and the creativity that goes into project work and the creation of buildings – detail is paramount in both,” she said. “Finishing work is the most important part. You can make something beautiful, but if you don’t pay great detail to finishes such as threads, framing and sizing, it won’t go well.”

Ms. Browne, who began embroidering at the age of three and sewing on her Betty Machine at the age of four, says that crafting helps her relax after a busy day at work on Memorial’s infrastructure planning.

For more than four decades, she focused on crocheting (which she says you can do in the car, on a plane or in a hotel); now, she does simpler work but with more complicated wools.

Ann Browne with her "N.L. Pillow." The green wool is from an alpaca farm on the Port-au-Port peninsula. The mixture is from Baynoddy Farms in Chapel’s Cove and the buttons are moose or caribou antler.
Ann Browne with her “N.L. Pillow.” The green wool is from an alpaca farm on the Port-au-Port peninsula. The wool mixture is from Bay Noddy Farms in Chapel’s Cove and the buttons are moose or caribou antler.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

She uses textured wools, such as Merino, alpaca and llama and buys a lot of local wool – Baynoddy Farm’s wool in Chapels Cove is a favourite source of hers.

“I don’t use patterns at all, so if I see wool, I imagine the finished product. The only problem with that is, if I don’t buy enough because I love it and keep going, then I need to be more creative to figure out how to finish it!”

On top of that, she has needlepointed since the age of 10, began spinning her own wool in recent years on her own loom (“It’s addictive”) and began felting, as well. She now has more felt and roving than she knows what to do with.

Off-loom weaving in the round, made with acrylic wool and two different styles of rovings.
Off-loom weaving in the round, made with acrylic wool and two different styles of rovings.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

And while Ms. Browne has no use for patterns, she does say her mother Emma was her guiding factor and mentor.

A self-taught knitter at the age of five and practising her craft until her death at at the age of 90 five years ago, she taught her daughter to be limited only by her imagination.

Growing up in Ontario, Ms. Browne found inspiration in nature: water, grass, beaches and now takes great pleasure in the textures of Newfoundland’s hills, trees and shorelines.

“There is so much out there to celebrate, to learn from. Nature provides so much. I see so much beauty, we need to be able to express ourselves in positive, happy ways.”

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