What difference can PAL Ottawa make in the life of an arts worker? Plenty, as Maria Hawkins, long considered Ottawa’s Blues Lady, can attest.

In 2015, Hawkins required surgery to prevent permanent vision damage. When the Ottawa General’s Eye Institute invited her to participate in a clinical trial for a new corneal transplant procedure, the implications were dizzying.

“This kind of diagnosis sends you into a tailspin when you’re an independent artist and you’re living from paycheque to paycheque…and I do mean gig to gig,” she recalled.

Living Gig to Gig

Part of living gig to gig meant Hawkins had to be flexible and incredibly frugal. Indeed, by 2015, despite being one of this city’s most treasured artists  – winner of a United Way Community Builder Award, the National Arts Centre Award for Artistic Excellence, and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for 25 years of inspiration to Canadian youth – Hawkins had been forced to cut living costs to a bare minimum. As a result, she had stopped renting, and instead, she house-sat, stayed with friends and, when necessary, lodged in rooming houses.

Hawkins recognized the extensive post-surgery recovery period would require her to refrain from singing. For an artist who lives off her voice, this spelled crisis. “I felt that my safety and my sanity were at stake,” she said.

While looking for assistance, Hawkins happened to pick up a PAL Ottawa brochure at the Musicians’ Union office.  After speaking with the Coordinator of the Supporting Cast program, Michael Namer, Hawkins felt reassured.  “He was very supportive right from the get and the go. He understands that as an artist in my category, not a mainstream big-name, having-made-it artist that I certainly did not have the wherewithal to go through this alone.”

“You Will be Safe”

Namer and Supporting Cast spearheaded a process seeking funds to help Maria secure stable and safe housing for the duration of her surgery and recovery. Despite the challenges involved, Namer reminded Hawkins: “this is worth doing. We are here to help you and we will help you. And you will be safe.”

Three days before her 2015 surgery, PAL Ottawa helped her move into a one-bedroom cooperative apartment. “They saved my life,” she told the Ottawa Citizen earlier this year.

And while financial support was crucial for Hawkins’ safety and security, emotional support from PAL also played a big role. “This is all just stuff. Stuff comes and stuff goes. I’m very glad to have it, but what lasts is how you make people feel…. PAL has the support of people out there who believe that artists have value…. That’s a big part of what has improved my spirits and improved my chances of a full recovery. And I needed that so badly.”

Seeing the Art in Others

“PAL has the support of people out there who believe that artists have value. That’s a big part of what has improved my spirits and improved my chances of a full recovery. And I needed that so badly.” – Blues Singer Maria Hawkins

Five years later, Hawkins is hoping to complete the next round of four surgeries for her right eye, but they’ve been delayed due to Covid. She says she is making positive use of her time during the pandemic, including performing for seniors. It’s the latest chapter in her lengthy and diverse career, from 15 years of hosting jams at The Rainbow to three decades of education and entertainment across the Ottawa Valley and beyond. She is well known as the co-creator of the award-winning “Blues in the Schools”, bringing music to classrooms across the nation’s capital. She also brought together 200 students from 28 schools to play in the largest blues band ever, with help from local musicians, while also working on anti-bullying initiatives for school-aged kids.

“Life is precious,” Hawkins says, “and we have to hold on to our art and see the art in others every day.”

Your charitable donation enables PAL Ottawa to provide life-saving supports to arts workers like Maria. To contribute now, please click HERE.

Be sure to tune in: Maria reports that she will be appearing on CKCU Radio (FM 93.1) on the Special Blend show from 7 to 9 am on Tuesday, February 9th. “I am bringing in a special blend of music from Canadian Folk Music Award Nominees past and present. It is such a treat to bring this fantastic music to the airwaves.”