Right up her alley

Garage doors become Arctic canvases thanks to Winnipeg artist's love of polar bears


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That’s a muskox in the back lane... and some narwhals... and a wolf.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/09/2017 (1958 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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That’s a muskox in the back lane… and some narwhals… and a wolf.

Be assured they are perfectly safe to approach. They’ve been created by internationally recognized Winnipeg artist Kal Barteski (www.instagram.com/kalbarteski).

They make up just a fraction of the dynamic portraits of Arctic animals she’s painted on garage doors and panels fastened to fences in a Wolseley neighbourhood laneway.

“The back-lane project started because I was co-ordinating another project called Seawalls Churchill, a mural festival in Churchill that took place in June 2017,” says Barteski, 41.


Back Alley Arctic

By Kal Barteski

Saturday, Sept. 30, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Located in Wolseley in the back lane between Ethelbert and Canora streets, south of Westminster Avenue. Visitors are reminded to be respectful of the residential spaces. Cars will be restricted during Nuit Blanche.

“I was taking 18 artists to Churchill to paint 18 huge murals that focus on ocean health and the community.

“I really wanted to paint with them because they were amazing world-class artists, and I didn’t have a ton of mural-painting experience, so I began by painting my own garage.”

Barteski’s work, which also includes illustrated typography, has been on display at The Forks and the Assiniboine Park Zoo and used by companies such as Starbucks and Lululemon. But this project, one she is calling Back Alley Arctic, is much closer to home. Literally.

“It seemed like a good place to start — with old decrepit metal — and I like to practise as part of my research so I painted my own garage first and then other people asked if I could paint their garages. It turned out to be a really beneficial project for both me and some of my neighbours,” she says.

“I got to practise and find out what it was going to be like in Churchill, and we started adding art to the back lane.”

The paintings run up and down the lane, between Ethelbert and Canora streets, south of Westminster Avenue. They’re book-ended by a giant polar bear face, curious but assertive, on the south end, looking straight up the lane at a larger-than-life snowy owl, scanning for lemmings, possibly, at the north end. In between there is a menagerie of Arctic animals — caribou, Arctic foxes, belugas — painted onto doors or onto panels, which are fastened to fences.

Barteski visits Churchill several times a year to observe and sketch the polar bears in the wild and has taken her love and commitment to the well-being of the bears and turned it into a communal experience.


“The reason I love painting polar bears so much is because they really are these large, gentle, inquisitive creatures. Don’t get me wrong, I know they are also very dangerous, and I would not want to be alone with one,” she says.

“But so much of what we feel about this wildlife is what we’ve learned in movies or in stories and so much of that is just really inaccurate,” she says.

“It’s cool when you’ve been watching polar bears for as much time as I have, and when you see the little mischievous ones that are just trying to get a reaction and you can see the ones that are very coy and trying to figure out a situation. I find it really fascinating that each one of those bears has a really complex set of emotions going on.”

When she visits the bears, she travels with a local guide from Churchill.

“I think if you have children, watching a mom with her cubs is the most obvious, basic communication. She’s like ‘Get over here! Get away from there! Stop doing this! Follow me!’” she says.

Her closest encounter with a bear happened when she was in an SUV.

“A bear came up beside our vehicle and he put both paws on the window beside me and began testing the glass — the way they test the ice before breaking it,” she says.

“He was so much bigger than what I was expecting. He had to kind of stretch his head low to look in. He had the coolest eyes and he was kind of like, ‘Hmm, what’s going on in here?’

“It was one of my favourite moments of my entire life.”


You would think that a woman with such an affinity for polar bears would discover they are her spirit animal.

“I was in the cultural centre in Whistler and I was buying all these bear things because I ran into a black bear, and I ran into a grizzly bear, and I was really feeling like my bear energy was so strong, and I felt like my heart was going to explode with all these bears that I was running into. And I was talking to an older indigenous lady and she said: ‘Oh you’re buying a lot of bear things.’ And I said: ‘I know, the bear is my spirit animal, I just keep finding them and they find me, we’re just one.’

“And she said, ‘If bears are finding you then bears are definitely not your spirit animal. You are most certainly a fish!’

“And I was deeply offended,” she says, laughing.

“And I didn’t tell anybody this story for a really long time because, how could that possibly be? But if you look at the description of fish as spirit animal — they are emotional, they are big at bringing groups together, they are big at engaging communities and they are great at attracting bears!”

She says she chose the name Back Alley Arctic because she’s painted more than polar bears. Each of them is part of a larger, interdependent system; to sustain one you must sustain them all.

“It’s a group effort. To save polar bear habitat for polar bears, we are also saving caribou and walrus. These are all connected and we are all connected,” she says.

“So I like painting creatures where you can actually feel their eyes and we can see each other.”

Barteski says she will have created 41 paintings and put in 400-plus hours of work into Back Alley Arctic. She budgeted about $1,000 for exterior latex paint, and the paintings should have about 10 years of life. She’s neither asked for, nor has she received any money for the work, although she says donations to the Winnipeg Foundation-hosted Polar Bear Fund are welcome (www.polarbearfund.ca). Tax receipts are issued and the money stays in Manitoba.

“We have the largest polar bear population and one of the largest concentrations of denning mothers here,” she says. “The funds go to projects that are polar bear-inspired and non-invasive. I’m really big on not seeing any more moms with collars, those are really terrible things.”

This year’s Nuit Blanche, which runs Saturday from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., will be the outdoor gallery’s official opening.

Painting in a public laneway, interacting with passers-by while creating, has been a new experience for Barteski.

“You have to keep going, which is good practice because you have to stay loose, you have to be a little bit more forgiving,” she says.

“But it’s really fun for me to walk by and to see these things and see the kids engaging with them and other people taking photos and selfies. People are engaging, not just with me but with art and with the alley.”

Twitter: @WendyKinginWpg

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