This story has polar bears, a disabling spinal injury, a washed-out railway, an almost-forgotten town in Northern Canada and 18 artists from around the world. And in the middle of it all: a Winnipeg painter, Kal Barteski.
It all started with bears.
A polar bear named Debby lived in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo. In 1996, Barteski started visiting Debby every week, sometimes twice, to sketch her. Barteski painted polar bears in her home studio and posted them online — luckily enough, a reality TV series found her work and offered her a free trip to Churchill, Man., to see the animals up close.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel incredibly connected to polar bears at the time,” Barteski says, “but Churchill is like this magical, mythical place, and I really wanted to go.”
She visited in 2011 and fell in love with Churchill, its people and its bears — returning to the community again and again over the next few years.
Around this time, a past injury and chronic illness started interfering with Barteski’s life, slowly robbing her of mobility. No surgery was available for her in North America, but Barteski found a spinal reconstruction procedure in Germany that cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Her husband told her to sell all the polar bear paintings; her studio was filled with them.
Barteski becomes emotional when she talks about this part — not only because her paintings ended up paying for the 2015 surgery and saved her from a life of disability, but because she had to sell her bears. “I probably became a little bit too emotionally attached to my paintings,” she says. She felt gratitude, and also grief.
Barteski’s gratitude included the community of Churchill, and she decided she wanted to give something back.
The Value of Public Art
- It creates community; public art is for everyone.
- It can provide a new way to experience a place.
- It can engender pride and ownership among the locals.
- It provides job opportunities for artists and cultivates the creative class.
- It boosts the local economy as tourists come to experience it.
- It creates public awareness about community issues.
- It supports learning and opens both eyes and minds.
- It's an investment in livability and quality of life.
In the summer of 2017, in partnership with the PangeaSeed Foundation, she organized the SeaWalls Churchill mural festival. Eighteen artists — from Brazil, Japan, Germany, Australia, Spain, New Zealand, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada — travelled to Churchill to paint its abandoned buildings. A documentary crew arrived to watch the public art unfold across the community. But just before everyone landed, something terrible had happened.
Record snowfall — and subsequent flooding — all but destroyed the railway. It was the northern community’s main lifeline to the rest of the world.
There are no roads that go to Churchill and, without the train, residents found themselves cut off. The federal government and the railway company each denied responsibility for the expensive reconstruction of the line, while the cost of transporting food and supplies skyrocketed.
The documentary Know I’m Here captures this almost unbelievable timing and circumstance — as the international artists start painting stunning, large-scale murals, residents despair for their future.
“You could really tell that the people in town, they were a little bit doubtful when we arrived,” Barteski says. “You know — ‘what are these artists doing? Why is this happening?’”
“But by the time the artists left, the town really felt like they had been seen. They had been appreciated for what they had and who they were, and how important what they were going through was.”
The mural by Australian artist Georgia Hill — reading simply “Know I’m Here” across a massive, former military base — left a lingering impact in Churchill, Barteski says. For a town cut off from the rest of the country, it was a clarion call for this community to not be forgotten.
“It took a month or two following the festival for people to really appreciate how profound that statement was,” Barteski says, “how powerful, how meaningful it was to them.”
Which brings this story to 2018. Barteski has been working “very diligently” on a new collection of polar bear paintings and hopes to put on a 2019 show. She still regularly visits Churchill and calls the SeaWalls festival among the most ambitious, most meaningful projects she has ever completed. Another exciting project remains in its earliest stages — details are still under wraps but should be announced soon.
The documentary was “cathartic” for Churchill, Barteski says. “The murals are one thing, but the fact that the film crew was there to document all of it — it’s really a time capsule of emotion, and also a really interesting tool of accountability.”
After roughly a year and a half of no rail service, the first trains started rolling back into Churchill in early November. The public art remains, and there are hopes that more people will visit to see it.
“It is a jewel,” Barteski says. “They are so proud of it.”
“My hopes for Churchill are for the rest of the world to appreciate and get a glimpse of their magic. Hopefully, fall in love with bears. Hopefully, fall in love with Canada. Hopefully, find some empathy for their struggle.”
“I would love for people to go visit, I’d love for more artists to come. I would love for Canada to take a little more pride and ownership of our North, our wilderness.”
In other words, Barteski wants everyone to hear the story of this remote community in Canada’s rugged North — filled with natural wonders, unparalleled beauty and empty buildings. And fighting to survive.
As she says in the documentary Know I'm Here, “We see you, Churchill. We know you’re here.”