Tales of the NWT’s lost and forgotten public art
When the story of Walt Humphries’ mural was first reported by the CBC in late May, many NWT residents were furious.
The mural, eight feet tall and nearly 30 feet in length, had been a staple of Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital for 25 years. Humphries is a well-known Yellowknifer and artist, and he had volunteered his time and supplies to paint the piece.
Three years ago, the mural was taken down when construction for the new hospital began.
This year, it was found outside, lying face-up beside the emergency entrance parking lot. It had weathered two years of snow, rain, and northern weather without protection.
“I was a little shocked that it ended up like that,” Humphries said of the discovery. “That’s not the way you store a big mural.”
NWT residents denounced the discovery online, calling the incident a “show of disrespect,” “shameful,” and “totally unacceptable.”
Fortunately for Humphries, this public outcry sparked some action. The NWT government swooped in days later, wrapping the mural in a tarp and bringing it inside for restoration.
Yet it appears Humphries is far from alone in this experience. Alongside online condemnations, residents began coming forward with stories of public art that has been forgotten, lost, and left by the wayside.
‘I don’t even know if it’s there’
Why does this keep happening?
Take Ben Nind’s story as an example. Nind, a playwright in the NWT, shared an experience with Cabin Radio dating back to 2008 – when he was head of the cultural program for that year’s Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife.
Part of that year’s cultural program was the commissioning of murals for display around the city during the Games.
Afterward, many of the pieces were sent to smaller communities, such as Hay River.
Visitors explore public works of art at the opening of the Stanton Territorial Hospital in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The largest mural – a whopping 40 feet long and 20 feet high – was painted by Chipewyan Dene artist John Rombough, from Łutselkʼe. As far as Nind knows, the piece was taken down and put into storage and has remained there ever since.
“For many years, I asked the City of Yellowknife whether or not they would be willing to hang that piece,” he said, “because it celebrated not only John’s [artistic] style, but it was also a celebration of sport and culture.
“But I don’t know what the condition of [the painting] is now that it has in been in storage for so long. And I don’t even know if it’s there.”
From Nind’s perspective, there are a couple of reasons as to why things like this happen.
The first is that people might not fully understand exactly what public art entails, or its importance, he argues.
“I think there’s a definition that is missing in terms of what public art actually means,” Nind said.
Another might be that proper care and maintenance of public art is not high on municipal or territorial agendas.
Yellowknife artist Terry Pamplin agrees. He has friends who have had similar experiences.
A few years ago, Pamplin tried to track down a mural by fellow NWT painters Jen Walden and Sandy Craig. The two had been commissioned by the territorial department of transportation to paint a large portrait of a bison, celebrating the completion of Highway 3 into Yellowknife.
The mural was never put up, and no one – including the artists – knows exactly where it is to this day. Pamplin’s efforts to find it came up short.
“It’s hiding in the highways department somewhere. That’s where we think it is,” Pamplin said. Walden declined Cabin Radio’s interview request.
To Pamplin, this signals that public art is not a priority for government departments in the NWT. He thinks it also signals tight budgets.
Humphries says the larger issue is finding someone willing to take responsibility for public art.
For example, while the artists retain creative copyright, who’s in charge of maintenance? Is it incumbent on whoever commissioned the piece to take care of it in the long run?
In Humphries’ case, the GNWT commissioned the mural for the hospital. In his opinion, that makes it the territorial government’s responsibility.
However, he acknowledges that can be tricky to determine “unless it’s spelled out at the beginning: who’s responsible for maintaining the mural, and inspecting it, and cleaning it, and who’s going to be responsible for any restorations that need doing.”
Pamplin himself has tried to perform upkeep on his paintings, but has been denied funding from both the NWT Arts Council and the City of Yellowknife to complete the task.
The funds would help Pamplin touch up the ageing paint and varnish to keep pieces in good shape. More often than not, he said, he has to convince city council it’s a worthy endeavour.
Yellowknife ‘arts master plan’
It can be a frustrating battle.
“Visual art, all by itself, is such a powerful thing,” Pamplin said, “but to try to get people to realize that and [have it] actually instituted in public budgeting seems like an impossibility up here.”
Not all city officials see it that way. Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city administrator, told Cabin Radio the City “really does recognize the importance of public art.”
“The ability to have public art is [what] makes civilization,” she said. “You want to have the ability to create and to celebrate the work that people create, and it’s an important part of being able to do so in the public.”
She said “it stinks” to see artwork being forgotten or damaged, and agreed that Humphries’ story, while perhaps the most public, is most likely not an isolated incident.
To address some of those concerns and develop art policies, Bassi-Kellett said council has its sights set on an “arts master plan” for development in 2021. The plan would complement existing public art policies from 2016.
The details of this plan are not yet clear. According to Bassi-Kellett, it will recognize those artists and artisans selling their work while maintaining spaces for non-commercial exhibitions.
“It’s not just sellable stuff,” she said, “but it’s stuff that is provocative, that encourages dialogue, that raises issues. I mean, that’s the purpose of art.”
While not exactly a fond memory, Humphries said he thinks some good will come from his experience. It will prompt people to ask questions and might provide some education on the importance of public art, he hopes.
For Nind, that’s imperative.
“These things are a reminder that [public artworks] are important,” he said. “These add colour, these add character, these add meaning to what otherwise would be very dull and boring streets.”
As for Pamplin, he believes public art reflects the communities and the people surrounding it.
“It shows everybody who we are.”