September 17, 2021

Urban Murals

Calgary’s Outdoor Art Gallery

by Rosemary Kennedy | Articles & Photos

This past year has deprived Albertans of cultural favourites like concerts, plays, and eating out. Therefore, it was auspicious to learn about the downtown murals that provide both a cultural and outdoor experience. With several friends, we started organizing small group walks to see the outdoor murals in the Beltline area and then beyond.

The ongoing Calgary BUMP (Beltline Urban Mural Project at yycbump.ca) started in 2017. Different artists have completed murals on buildings in the Beltline area, between 17th Avenue and 10th Avenue and between Macleod Trail and 14th Street. Submissions are accepted each spring, and work is completed during the summer. Some murals loom over the street while others are hidden gems, tucked away in tiny alleys. Styles vary from abstract to realistic, and subject matter reflects diverse interests and concerns. Artists are both local and international.

Some artists have chosen to reflect the businesses that dwell within, such as the tropical scene on the Simply Irie Caribbean Restaurant, the writing materials on the back of Shelf Life Books, and the interior of the barber shop shown on its outside wall.

Indigenous artists are represented by several works. Tsuut’ina artist Nathan Meguinis has completed a symbolic panorama of Treaty Seven culture in brilliant colours entitled Buffalo Nations Stand and Be Noticed. It can be difficult to find as it’s in a tiny alley off 1st Street, but it’s well worth the effort. In Nathan’s work, every colour and element is suffused with meaning.

Other murals are designed just to bring a smile, like the giant squirrel with a tiny human in its paw. Another work portrays two cats among an array of bird houses, leaving the viewer to wonder whether the birds will escape or the cats will pounce. The pink and green Monsters and Robots is fun to examine with its strange multi-eyed heads but also has a possible message about diversity.

Themes from nature are found in murals of birds, a cougar, and local flowers.

Real people can be discovered too. Kevin Ledo portrays Angela Gladue, a traditional fancy dress and hoop dancer. Alex Kwong presents his take on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with his portrait Simona Lisa, which shows local textile artist Simone Saunders.

Troy Lovegate’s huge painting of a person holding a flower towers over 17th Avenue. Upon closer inspection, one finds multiple images hidden in the body, including a train, fire hydrant, nest, dinosaur, and pig. Searching for these items can keep one engaged for quite some time as cars arrive and exit the parking lot.

Another large mural by Ola Volo shows a princess riding a horse. The artwork has a strong folkloric element, perhaps reminiscent of the artist’s Kazakh background. SbuOne’s blue bull with female figure also has a dramatic folkloric motif but in a more Spanish or Mexican style. It represents the combination of masculine and feminine within us.

One of my favourite artists is Elena Bushan whose works combine realistic images and fantasy. One very detailed work is brilliantly coloured with images of fish, birds, beasts, and flowers surrounding a goddess holding the earth.

While most of the murals in the Beltline were commissioned, the Sunnyside community encouraged people to decorate their garages and fences. While some work was completed by professionals, others were done by the homeowners. One fence portraying many fantastical creatures was designed by a young man in honour of his grandmother and painted by the whole family. Most of these murals are hidden in the alleys so one has to really explore the area to find them. Expect to see bicycles on rooftops and guitars used as the bodies of painted butterflies.

This year, with patios extending onto sidewalks and even into the streets, BUMP has encouraged painting murals on the concrete barriers dividing the bike lanes and patios. One such divider outside the Duke shows arcade games and beer cans, reflecting the activities of the establishment.

Maps showing the locations of these artworks can be found on the internet; however, there are so many that it will take several visits to discover them all, thus providing Calgarians with lots of viewing opportunities while exploring in the fresh air.

And Beyond

Create your own mural walking tour wherever you are. There are options in Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Lacombe, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Newell Region, and Taber Region. While someone has named Lacombe the Mural Capital of Alberta, Legal, Alberta, has been declared the Mural Capital of Canada.

Rosemary Kennedy is a retired teacher-librarian who worked in Calgary and her home province of Newfoundland. She loves to read, sing, travel, and explore the outdoors. Walking with friends was one of her favourite pandemic survival techniques.