Sometimes a wall is more than just a wall.
It’s a blank canvas. And in recent years, artists in Selkirk have turned several into works of art, highlighting local figures and traditions, using paint to transform bricks and plaster in the downtown into a growing visual history of the city.
Since 2018, nearly 20 murals have emerged, depicting everything from the traditional community round dance to Indigenous and settler women thriving on the Prairie landscape to a grandmother passing on her teachings. Others bring needed attention to the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and to everyone affected, in the past and present, by the Indian Residential School System, those who came home and those who never did, artist Jordan Stranger says.
All these murals will serve as the backdrop for a free public art crawl Sept. 4 and 5, with local vendors and artisans posting up next to them and getting a long-awaited opportunity to share their work with the community, including handmade goods, paintings, crafts, sewing and woodworking pieces, and much more.
The art crawl is the brainchild of local artist and tattooist Ashley Christiansen, who herself has worked on seven murals in the city in the last three years, alongside established and emerging artists, including students from nearby high schools.
"During the pandemic, most artists haven’t had shows or in-person events," she says. "There’s not many places you can go to and sell your art."
What better place to do that than under the crowd-drawing walls that have quickly turned Selkirk’s buildings into must-see attractions?
Selkirk’s mural renaissance started roughly three years ago, when Joanie English of the Interlake Art Board approached Selkirk-born artist Charles Johnston — a leading muralist — to establish a mural creation and mentorship program along with local artists, students, and others who were interested.
"By mentoring artists and organizers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, my goal was to help create a top-grade, comprehensive, mural-art environment that would ultimately be self-sustainable," he says.
Prior to that, Johnston says, the community, like many others, had experienced some hits and misses with murals — improperly prepared surfaces, substandard materials or a lack of insight into the artform’s potential.
"When I returned to Selkirk after a long time away, it felt tired and desperately in need of a burst of creativity and a coat of paint," Johnston says.
"But first, the community was hungry for public art. The desire was there, the will was there. Dedicated volunteers within Selkirk made it all happen," he adds. "Without this, there’d be nothing. No murals, no public art of any significance."
In true collaborative fashion, volunteers and artists found connections with businesses and local organizations to develop and fund murals, and in just three years, the city is indeed bursting with colour.
Artist Mandy van Leeuwen, who’s worked on dozens of murals across the province, says the project has connected the community and elevated stories and ideas through art, while events such as the art crawl shine the light on the community’s wealth of artisans. "It’s not just murals," she says. "They are only one backdrop."
In 2020 and 2021, five murals have been completed by a diverse collection of artists, including some, such as Christiansen, Brad Lent and many others, who’ve been mentored in all facets of mural-making as part of the mural program.
The program has also made a concerted effort to use the artform to respect the city’s roots while showcasing the rich history of Indigenous peoples who lived in the area millennia before settlers arrived in the 19th century.
To that end, Selkirk’s Jeannie Red Eagle, an Anishinaabe Ikwe member of Rolling River First Nation, has acted as a knowledge keeper and traditional helper on Indigenous-led pieces such as Healing Path, an intricate mural adorning the Manitoba Metis Federation building on Manitoba Avenue, and Legacy of Love, a mural at the Gaynor Family Library honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Teams work on the murals together.
Those projects, as well as an upcoming interactive mural-sculpture-amphitheatre behind the regional library depicting a giant turtle emerging from the ground, have been conceptualized through engagement with community leaders and elders. For Red Eagle, they represent a form of healing and connectivity.
That’s how Christiansen and Johnston see it: an opportunity to use art to tell stories while handing down skills to those with a desire to learn.
Though she says she still has a ton to learn, in only a few years Christiansen has been trained in mural prep and design, panel mounting, strategy and, of course, the painting techniques. Upcoming murals to be unveiled in the community include one depicting Manitoba’s endangered species — along with 3D sculptures of a lady slipper and a peregrine falcon — and another centred on Métis musical history.
The art-filled present is a far cry from Christiansen’s memory of public art growing up in Selkirk.
"We had Chuck the Channel Cat statue, and that was about it," she says with a laugh, intending no disrespect to the giant fibreglass catfish sculpture that’s greeted visitors to the city for more than 30 years.
Now, there’s a lot more, with more yet to come, and Christiansen hopes attendees discover new art when they visit for the crawl. Not just the murals, but the pieces and artisans sitting nearby, waiting to be seen.
The event takes place Sept. 4-5 in downtown Selkirk from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Locations include the Gwen Fox Gallery, Selkirk Friendship Centre, Merchants Hotel, Gordon Howard Senior Centre, Roxie’s Uptown Cafe, Bonded Mobility and Essential Cannabis Co. Participating vendors pay $20 per day, and can register by contacting Christiansen at email@example.com.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.