Since the beginning of human record, people have been creating artwork based on their natural surroundings. From cave paintings of wild animals to complexly rendered landscape paintings, we have explored our long and dynamic relationship with land, plants and wildlife. There seems to be no end to our revelry for the beauty of a sunset or the power of a tiger. We are connected to place often through nature and wildlife and our experiences of them. Artistically expressing the beauty of nature gives everyone something to be see and be excited about. But could art do more for humans and wildlife than visual stimulation and celebration? How can wildlife and public art create stronger communities?
For several years, I have been painting murals across Ontario, working with communities to foster local pride with artwork that reflects local history, stories and ecology. Painting a mural is performative work. As my team and I paint, we are often (happily) interrupted by onlookers who wish to express their joy and wonder about our work. Locals pass by and want to share their stories and experiences in the neighbourhood as well as their passion for art. These exchanges should never be taken for granted. As a community comes together to share, relationships and connections are made over two commonalities: the artwork, and the place. The experience of sharing their story and watching the work evolve leads to a sense of ownership and participation that connects people to the work, deepening the connection to place and community. Public murals reach audiences beyond the art galleries and the sometimes “superior” air that accompanies “high art”. Murals are for everyone and they present messages to all who see them.
My murals aim to beautify and unite communities. I have painted everything from folklore dragons in Chinatown, to historical stories of colonialism in Port Union. Also, I restore murals. After preparing the surface to restore a 20-year-old heritage mural, I can testify to value of a mural in a community, because as the old, peeling paint is scraped away, those passing by begin to frantically ask questions…”You’re not painting over this are you?” “What is happening here?!” The relief when I explain otherwise, is evident and often followed by expressions of gratitude: “It’s my favourite stop on this street…I walk past it every day to work”.
Like the murals that draw people in, natural spaces also unite communities with a positive bond. The happy spaces of the wild draw people of all walks of life. Like art, we can experience a range of emotions amidst wild spaces; from peace and tranquility to a rush of excitement. The sights and colours in the wild areas are a gateway to a deeply personal experience. The memory of a hike includes the physical labour, the act of discovery, the time shared with others or the insight gained from the experience. Nature is enjoyed by a larger spectrum of senses than the eyes; and the memory of the experience is what ties us to a place.
Therefore, both individually and better together, art and nature can unite people by connecting them to the land, wildlife, community, and memories to create a shared sense of belonging. The key factor behind the creation of community is shared experience. Each community is unique. It is critical that people understand and celebrate their distinctiveness.
As I developed the Turtle Guardians mural in Haliburton, the positive community impacts were evident before the mural had even been completed. As people joined together over coffee and lunch at Baked and Battered, dozens of people stopped daily to talk with me about the large snapping turtle I was painting on the side of the restaurant. They shared with me their experiences with turtles, where they live, their love for wildlife and the Haliburton area. The mural was joining community members together by sharing stories and common experiences. As they watch the mural develop, and chat with me, they become a part of the process. They share a piece of the monument. Having learned a thing or two about the gentleness and vulnerability of snapping turtles, many were eager to become more involved with the turtle and habitat conservation efforts by the Turtle Guardians program of the Land Between charity. The painting had sparked the interest of nature lovers to engage further with wildlife and their local community. However, a bigger win was the consideration and new perspectives that were generated from the process and painting; individuals who previously misunderstood snapping turtles as dangerous or worthless, now saw them in their true light as iconic invaluable animals. The mural serves to illustrate and testify that wildlife and community are one in the same; that both are dependent on people working to preserve these assets.
Article and Artwork by Stacey Kinder