As Walt Humphries surveyed his own exhibit, the self-taught artist and self-declared doodler recalled when bureaucrats told him he should be “locked up” for his art.
Humphries has been capturing the mood of Yellowknife since his arrival in 1969: raucous scenes at the Gold Range Bar and Miner’s Mess, contemplative pieces on the “temporary” neighbourhood of Northlands, apocalyptic scenes between warring Old and New towners.
All are now hung at Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
“One bureaucrat came in the coffee shop one time,” Humphries recalled, “and said, ‘You should be locked up. You shouldn’t be allowed to create work like this.’
“And I said, ‘It’s a free world.’
“It’s funny how what’s radical one day becomes accepted, and becomes part of the history of the place.”
Longtime Yellowknifer Bill Braden approached Humphries about doing a show during a recent trip on the beer barge – itself a piece of the city’s history, an annual celebration of Yellowknife’s barging tradition.
Unbeknownst to Braden, newcomer to town and art writer Sarah Swan had also become hooked on Humphries’ art and wanted to stage a show.
Swan had happened upon the works after seeing Humphries’ long-running column in the Yellowknifer newspaper, Tales from the Dump. The two joined forces and embarked on a search for Humphries originals stretching back to the 1970s.
Bill Braden, left, Walt Humphries, Diane Baldwin, and Sarah Swan at the Life’s Like That exhibit, in a photo supplied by Braden.
When the curators put a call out for “lost” Humphries originals, the response was immediate. Collectors came out of the woodwork – many in Yellowknife, but farther afield as well – and the curators ended up with too many paintings to show. The finished exhibition displays a selection of 39 pieces.
Humphries, meanwhile, had to sit back and let curators pick and choose which of his “children” would get into the show. (He was happy that at least one alien made it in.)
For Braden, the scenes from bars and haunts of Yellowknife’s golden days are his favourites. He says they capture the mood of the town’s halcyon days.
“I grew up with these places. They’re institutions, they’re part of me,” he said. “I can smell the stale smoke and the spilled beer in the Gold Range and the mediocre coffee in the Miner’s Mess. I can hear the chatter, the music.”
Swan picks out the work depicting anti-bureaucratic sentiment or tension between different factions – paintings like The Houseboat Wars, which is held in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre’s permanent collection, or Old Town Versus New Town.
Finding the original of this second piece was a big moment for Swan.
“When you look at that, you may feel your latent anarchic tendencies start to ignite,” she says.
“You might feel, for example, like spray-painting the anarchy symbol on City Hall, or stealing a shopping cart from Walmart at least.”
Humphries’ own favourites are many – “I like them all,” he complained – but he feels nostalgia in his depictions of camp life.
“I spent a lot of time out in the bush living in a tent just like that. And so it brings back my youth,” he said. “That’s part of what art does. At different stages in your life, you get different things out of them.”
Admirers of Walt Humphries’ work at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The search for lost works uncovered stories of ways in which Humphries’ paintings travelled and inspired others.
One print of The Houseboat Wars, situated in an outhouse, helped a young boy forget his fear of the wolves and other scary creatures outside by delving into the details of the work.
However, another Humphries work – remembered by Braden from his time as a reporter at the Yellowknifer – has perhaps been lost forever. In 1992, the paper turned 20 and asked Humphries to portray the city 20 years on.
“He came up with this fantastic drawing of the city of Yellowknife under a massive glass dome. It was of course to keep us warm in winter and keep the bugs out in the summer,” Braden said.
“Maybe some lucky scavenger has it somewhere, some other lucky scavenger, and maybe it’ll surface one day.”
Humphries said he would have trimmed his beard had he known this photo would be reproduced at this size. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Humphries is recovering from sepsis, which struck just as the exhibit was being moved and mounted. He admitted he had spent time in hospital wondering whether he would, in fact, make it to his own show.
“I was thinking it would be a real bummer if I missed my own art show,” he said. “It would bring a whole new dimension to the show’s title.” (The show is entitled Life’s Like That.)
Humphries hopes to eventually see a public art gallery in Yellowknife for shows like this. “It really helps define a place, the art people see,” he said. “It’s important for people’s well-being, as much as is exercise, sports, and entertainment.”
Life’s Like That is on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre until June. An art party at the centre is happening on Sunday, where Humphries will join fellow Yellowknife artists Alison McCreesh, Tracey Byrant, Sarah Swan, and Cody Fennell for short demos and guided tours of the exhibit.