Walt Humphries' hospital mural found face-up on gravel pile near new hospital
'You can see where the water's getting in,' says Yellowknife artist
Walt Humphries got the call from a friend last week.
"He said, 'Hey, I see your mural's coming up out of the snow. Did you know it was buried in the snow?' I said: 'No.'"
The mural in question is a roughly eight-and-a-half metre-long, two-and-a-half metre-wide painting the Yellowknife artist produced in 1992. For over 25 years, it greeted visitors to the old Stanton Territorial Hospital.
It now lies face-up on a pile of gravel beside the new emergency entrance parking lot. Though it's not clear how or when that happened, Humphries guesses it's been there for two winters and a summer, and the damage is starting to show.
"You can see where the water's getting in," Humphries said.
The plywood mural is still in its steel frame and covered with plexiglass, but it's beginning to warp and crack. The plexiglass, which should protect it from the elements, is instead trapping heat and moisture that speeds up the damage. The full force of the sun has also likely bleached some of the colour out of the original work.
Humphries is a well-known Yellowknife artist, newspaper columnist and prospector. He recalls being asked to paint something for the hospital in the early 1990s. He spent "a good two months" on the project, volunteering his time to do it and using supplies donated by local businesses. It's the biggest painting he's ever done.
The mural was taken down three years ago in order to make way for construction of the new hospital. At the time, Humphries was assured by hospital administration that it would be taken care of until it could be reinstalled.
Humphries believes the piece can still be saved. He'd like to see an art conservator from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre take a look and see what it would take.
Humphries paints fun, colourful and sometimes deceptively simple works. Art critic Sarah Swan has praised what she calls his "original and consistent" vision, and argued that if he had been painting such works in a larger centre, he would be well-known throughout Canada.
Bill Braden recently co-curated a retrospective of Humphries's paintings with Swan at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. He said the mural is a significant work.
"Rather than just do a painting of a hospital, he chose to reflect a community," Braden said. "It's an historic document, really."
Like Humphries, Braden was disappointed to see the painting left outdoors.
"Public art is important anywhere," Braden said. "We don't have enough of it up here and to see this one has just gone by the wayside … it's disappointing."
Both Braden and Humphries have written a letter to the premier and two government ministers. They're asking the government to identify "a responsible agency to take formal ownership and responsibility for the mural, its restoration and reinstallation."
"I'd hate to see this lost," Humphries said. "You do art so people can enjoy it. It gives a sense of place.
"And it should be saved. That's the thing about art. It should last several lifetimes."