Bleak beauty

Murals by international artists in Churchill festival offer welcome relief for anxious, exhausted residents of battered, bruised northern town


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For Andreas von Chrzanowski, a three-storey tall illustration of the few port workers left in Churchill would take more than just a few buckets of paint and sharp brushes to fashion — it would require a thoughtful consideration of the community’s identity, texture, people and spaces.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/07/2017 (1965 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For Andreas von Chrzanowski, a three-storey tall illustration of the few port workers left in Churchill would take more than just a few buckets of paint and sharp brushes to fashion — it would require a thoughtful consideration of the community’s identity, texture, people and spaces.

“In a place like this, you have to remember that the art will continue to impact the people even after you leave,” said the Frankfurt artist who goes by the pseudonym of Case Maclaim. “So get close to the community, get close to where they are. Have a chat. Learn about each other over a beer or two.”

Case Maclaim’s The Rope, painted on OmniTrax’s port residence, captures the state of employment and prosperity in Churchill. (Tre Packard photo)

Port workers balancing on a train track were his muses, people he photographed while in town. Positioned at the back of a building north of town, the mural is seemingly inconspicuous to those who may be driving past.

The decision for this is explicit and for a subtle, yet political provocation. The mural itself becomes the foreground to the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay, conveying a subtle, yet cheeky, message about the state of employment and local economic prosperity in Churchill.

Posters in Churchill diners and antique shops call on residents to “Save the Port!” Last summer, American-based OmniTrax announced it was closing the port and issued 750 layoff notices.

The future of Canada’s only Arctic port and the rail line into the community — also owned by OmniTrax — remains up in the air. The line was damaged by spring flooding and the community is currently without an overland link to the south.

With no train in sight and no foreseeable jobs for area residents, Case’s port workers “walk the (rail) line,” some to pass the time and others to protest, while a resolution is sought and advocated for.

“My painting touches on the issue of the railway, by showing port workers balancing like tightrope dancers on the washed-away railway,” Case said. “It stands as a metaphor for how fragile life can be in subarctic terrain and how essential the railway and our oceans are for the survival of the people.”

Kal Barteski, who helped organize the festival, cares deeply about the province's polar bears. (Reid Valmestad photo)

A tundra ecosystem that promises the wild of polar bears and majesty of beluga whales forms soliloquies in the dreams of tourists. But as costs for food and produce rise, businesses will be forced to mark up their costs by as much as 20 per cent — crippling this main economic driver, and impacting the affordability for tourists to visit.

Like a snow globe, this is a town shaken up by job loss, the fragility of its ecosystem, and the lack of political investment. Like a snow globe, we look to Churchill for entertainment and tourism, but it remains cut off from the prosperity the rest of Canada is so conveniently afforded.

In light of these circumstances, the Town of Churchill received artful reprieve in late June, with colourful and dramatic transformations of vacant buildings, business facades and historical vestiges. The Sea Walls Festival brought in 18 renowned artists from Canada, the U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, U.K., Spain, Australia and Japan, curated by Winnipeg artist Kal Barteski.

“Polar bears are directly affected by the unprecedented melting of sea ice and subsequent habitat destruction at an alarming rate, resulting in a big challenge for the species to survive,” Barteski said.

“What many people don’t realize is that polar bears spend the majority of their lives on sea ice and for that reason, they are considered a marine mammal. This is why the Sea Walls Festival in Churchill was so important — it’ll inspire others to give Churchill another glance, to encourage local pride, and to help resonate issues of importance, such as our oceans.”

Barteski cares deeply about Manitoba’s polar bears. Her work explores the white bear’s sentient nature through portraits made with paint, letters and lines.

Kal Barteski's Peace + Circumstance is a fitting piece of Churchill's Polar Bear Holding Facility. (Tre Packard photo)

Since its inception in 2014, the Sea Walls program has created nearly 300 murals in more than 12 countries by 200 artists with 25 different nationalities. Barteski made the pitch for Sea Walls to be brought to the subarctic, highlighting Churchill’s natural environment.

Spanish artist Dulk and his piece The Last Winter. (Jason Syvixay photo)

The response from the community was incredibly positive. “Thanks for colouring our world,” Amanda Proulx said behind a desk at the local antique shop, owned by Brian Ladoon, an often-polarizing yet exuberant figure in the community. Ladoon is known for his breeding and preservation of Eskimo dogs and creativity with a meticulously stone-carved castle overlooking the water, intended for resort-like recreation.

“There are so many things I love about Churchill, and to see it all incorporated in just one piece is so great. I am in awe and I am so thankful to be here, to live in this town, to have the artists come and show a little support, and compassion and something beautiful, is just so great,” Proulx noted.

She said customers were equally intrigued. “It’s been fun for us to speculate how the art would take shape as days went by. Churchill is going through a really tough time. Our rail line is closed. We just went through this massive blizzard and people’s homes are messed up from the ice that has melted. Having people come together right now is nice to see, and for it to be people from out of town coming in and bringing the community together, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Brooklyn-based Canadian artist Li-Hill creates On the Brink on Churchill's recycling centre. (Jason Syvixay photo)

Proulx said some residents were apprehensive with the transformation of Miss Piggy, a plane wreck located south of town, but when they saw the completed product, they believed it spoke to Churchill’s identity.

Artist Pat Perry, a thoughtful and observant political artist from Detroit, reinterpreted Miss Piggy with his piece, Emergency Transmission: Churchill, Manitoba, creating an opportunity to share uneasy stories of cultural genocide and environmental degradation to curious locals and tourists alike.

Perry’s illustrated lichen and flowers grow out of a skull, highlighting a positive outlook at a time of uncertainty when the future of our natural resources are exploited by pipelines. Kill marks — 117 of them — tallied on the outside of the plane’s cockpit speak to the grave and unfortunate relocation of the Sayisi Dene people, who were forced out of their community and into Churchill by the federal government, resulting in poverty, lack of housing and death.

“I believe my greatest service to the people here is to acknowledge what’s happened; what’s happening in this town, what’s happening across this continent, and what’s happening around this world,” Perry said. “Post 9/11, post-Inauguration Day 2017, post-every-treaty-broken, post-start of new extinction period, post-normalization of decline.”

Perry recruited several residents to pose for a photo in front of the plane near the end of the festival.

“One way or another, in the end, we will all be facing this together, and in my heart I know it would be wrong to look away from the crash course we are on,” Perry said.

American artist Pat Perry transformed the cargo plane wreck that locals dubbed Miss Piggy. His piece is titled Emergency Transmission: Churchill, Manitoba. (Tre Packard photo)

Walking and working together was a theme raised by artist Mandy VanLeeuwen, who flew in from Garson to change the side of a local hotel owned by Mayor Mike Spence, who was spotted on countless occasions delivering scaffolding, food and supplies to the artists.

The beauty of VanLeeuwen’s piece, which depicts footprints of varying types — moccasins, hunting boots and those made by polar bears — is in its loose interpretation: people can decide for themselves if they are all walking together, and walking forwards or backwards.

“I love Mandy’s piece because it illustrates how important it is for all of us to be working as a community, and as Manitobans, how our support for Churchill is needed more than ever,” Barteski said.

“The prosperity of our entire province depends on how we look after our environment and each other.”

The Seaport Hotel was the canvas for Footprints by Mandy Van Leeuwen of Garson. (Tre Packard photo)

While many of the art installations may come across as merely vacations into the realm of surrealism or a bite of kaleidoscopic bubble gum — there is more than meets the eye. Dynamically different from one artist to the next, yet visually cohesive, the pieces were well received by residents and tourists as all esthetically pleasing to the eye.

Work underway on Georgia Hill's Know I'm Here. (Reid Valmestad photo)

Look closer, and the pressing issues of Churchill are visible in every brush stroke.

Painted with every bit of black and white spray paint that could be sponsored, borrowed and scrounged from friends and family and shipped in by freight, Australian artist Georgia Hill, who works solely in black and white, helped transform a 43-metre-wide, 11-metre-tall abandoned navy base into an art piece with a message: “Know I’m Here.”

With only three words, the art piece becomes a reminder that the polar bear capital of the world exists and needs support.

“My goal was to create an art work that subtly references the sea ice of Hudson Bay, along with the rock textures of Inukshuks built by Canada’s Indigenous people, which are used to navigate and reference land, water and locations,” Hill said.

“The phrasing ‘Know I’m Here’ creates a strong message of valuing the people of Churchill, but also communicating to all people that we need to read the water and world around us in order to know our place and take actions to nurture what we have been given.”

Georgia Hill, of Australia, tackled the abandoned navy building -- HMCS Churchill -- with her piece Know I'm Here. (Tre Packard photo)

Elliot O’Donnell, who makes art under the name Askew One, had a rockier start to participation in the festival. Within 36 hours, he flew from Geneva to Winnipeg, and then with a layover in Rankin Inlet, started to hatch new plans for his artistic expression in Churchill.

Jason Syvixay photo Artist Askew One explores the delicate balance between humans and nature in his piece.

A New Zealand native, Elliot is no stranger to the Pacific Ocean, an experience he says has shaped and informed his views on the environment — of its preservation and protection.

“My wall is a play on the phrase ‘Human Nature.’ It’s become the universal excuse to justify everything we’re doing wrong in this world. But the mural is also a play on human and nature — the precarious balance between the two,” Elliot said.

“Churchill is a town where this is the underlying drama at all times. It’s a town so dependent on the natural environment and its wildlife and is simultaneously threatened by it, too. Everything in Churchill has a duality, a total double-edge to it. The text on the mural illustrates this tension and also draws from the parallels in texture of both the natural and industrial environments of the town.”

His piece, located adjacent to Case Maclaim’s port workers, speaks to the drama between human and nature — that it is a symbiotic relationship we must work towards if both are to be cared for and supported over time.

New Zealander Askew One titled his mural on the Omnitrax port residence Human Nature. (Tre Packard photo)

Charlie Johnston, a Winnipeg artist, revisited his “Spirit Guides” concept first painted in Churchill in 2008 on one of the howling wolf statues located along the town’s main street. Standing about nine metres tall, We swim in the same waters, depicts the northern lights as a voice of the town’s ancestors, and how the spirit in the water, sky, and earth are all connected.

“My piece is about ancestral legacy, what was passed on to us and what we will leave for our children’s children,” noted Johnston. “She may be the Creator or Sedna the Inuit goddess of the sea. She may be Jessie Tootoo, a healer or grandmother.

"Whoever she is, from her open hands the aurora is unleashed, the ethereal cosmic voice of the ancestors speaking to us. The beluga swims through the aurora, a spirit guide legacy reminding us of what is truly valuable and worthy.”

Winnipeg artist Charlie Johnston's mural We swim in the same waters adorns a regional health authority building. (Tre Packard photo)

His first version of the mural imagined children swimming along with the belugas, until a woman from the area offered some suggestions. Johnston’s piece resonated with her, resulting in her asking if the piece could be dedicated to a young girl by the name of Danica who drowned a year ago while watching belugas with her father and brother.

“The imagery I had chosen expresses spirit, healing and interconnected fluidity. Somehow it spoke to the community of theirs, and Danica’s passion for the whales and the aurora. I feel like I somehow helped with the healing process through these actions and the creation of this mural.”

Healing and bringing back joy to the community was one of the major aspirations for Barteski, as well.

Brazil's Arlin Graff works on Power of Nature. (Reid Valmestad photo)

“Churchill is an amazing, magical place,” she said. “They need our support. Let’s do our part to uplift them.”

While Churchill residents wait to see the outcome of provincial and federal government deliberations on the future of the railway and the port, 18 artists from around the world saw the inability to ship equipment, supplies and paint by land as an important challenge, one that spoke to the community’s sense of ingenuity and resilience.

“If a group of artists can respond quickly, then we can all respond quickly,” Barteski said. “Resilience is defined by the ability to withstand stress and to recover quickly. We could have easily decided to cancel the event, and residents in Churchill certainly thought we were going to.

“With the lack of a train to ship supplies and equipment, a lot of our time spent has been about being creative, knocking on doors and working with the gracious people of Churchill. This is a demonstration of what we can do when we rally together.”


Mural photography and a virtual tour can be found online at

Jason Syvixay is a passionate city builder born and raised in Winnipeg who helped with logistical support for the Sea Walls Festival in Churchill.

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