Jul 19, 2023
On my first trip to the Beltline I discovered, to my astonishment, that there were dozens of spectacular murals located in the streets, avenues and the back alleys of this inner core. It was totally unexpected and the artwork was over the top and full of messages and creativity.
It was on the morning of July 8, Stampede Parade day in Calgary, that I found myself headed into the Beltline District of the downtown part of this city. The drive down Highway 22 was full of late spring richness and was very uplifting. The fields were full of newborn calves and it looked like there was a bumper hay crop coming off the fields. I felt like the world was a pretty good place that day and where I was within it was just the best.
My partner Janne and I were not headed to parade watch but instead to a medical appointment in the inner city area. I had been to this geographical centre of Calgary a couple of times before and each time usually had an hour or so to kill which I would spend exploring its buildings. Some of the architecture there is spectacular with beautiful old sandstone houses, churches and schools.
On my first trip to the Beltline I discovered, to my astonishment, that there were dozens of spectacular murals located in the streets, avenues and the back alleys of this inner core. It was totally unexpected and the artwork was over the top and full of messages and creativity. It drew me from one mural to another like a magnet. It was a journey of discovery, systematically finding large murals in the most unlikely places.
I eventually learned that this open air contemporary art gallery had been in the works since 2017 and now consists of over 180 installations. It is now a community-led artist-focused festival extraordinaire. It is known as BUMP, an acronym for Beltline Urban Mural Project and this year the festival runs from August 5th to the 23rd.
I was like a little kid down there, running up and down streets and alleys looking for the next innovative piece. The creative efforts of jury-selected local, national and international artists celebrates both the arts and community. The works are enriching, provoke conversations and add beauty to the everyday world there. The very first piece I encountered was immediately across from the Safeway in the 800 block of 12 Avenue. The small white writing on the side of this image on an apartment said Violet King 1929- 1982. Some research revealed that Violet Pauline King Henry was the first black woman lawyer in Canada, the first black person to graduate law in Alberta and the first black person to be admitted to the Alberta Bar. Artist Curtia Wright chose to acknowledge someone who undoubtedly endured a lot of adversity to get to where she did.
It struck me then that murals present many opportunities to communicate imagery of the world around us, either in abstract or in realism. Each one can tell a story and the subject matter can vary greatly as can the scale. When I thought I had seen everything concept and size-wise in my first tour of the core I happened to look up at an apartment building on Center St and 10th avenue and almost fell over. It was there I found the work of a renown Hamburg artist called Daim who got his start on the streets as a graffiti artist in 1989. It is officially the world’s tallest mural at a jaw-dropping 310 feet tall. The BUMP profile on him states the following, “His geometric figures and letters obey the laws of light and shadow, but defy gravity and space, which results in transporting the beholder to new dimensions.” Oh yah, I was transported alright.The logistics of getting this mural done boggles the mind.
On my second pass some months later I realized that the extent of BUMP offerings runs from 17 avenue southwest to 6th avenue and from 14 street to Macleod Trail. A huge area. If you are going to take it all in pack a lunch. There are dozens more neutral surfaces within this area that are just blank palates waiting for a new creation.
There are so many examples of creative artwork it’s hard to know where to begin. In the 2021 year of additions renown Canadian graffiti artist Alexandar Bacon created a beautiful collage of images in the back alley near the Last Best Brewery off of 6th avenue. The half block long mural has rich smooth transitions and texture and is called Sunset Dreams. For this Toronto artist the piece represents his time in Calgary and the surrounding area and reflects, “the vibrant nightlife and beautiful Rockies. I could not capture the full extent of it in one picture.
As I was maneuvering up that alley for multiple photos of his work I turned around only to find a poor soul sprawled out on a set of stairs completely oblivious to the world. From the joy of Sunset Dreams I had stepped into a nightmare. I wondered if there was anything to do for him and with some regret moved on. During this most recent visit to the murals there were at least eight ambulance responses that appeared to be ending up in this core area. It was nonstop sirens for the hour and a half that I was there and at first I didn’t comprehend what was going on. As I ventured down other back alleys I came to realize that I had wandered into the middle of the crisis that many seem either disinterested or dismissive of. Everywhere I turned it seemed there were lost souls, crouched under small tarps draped between shopping carts, leaning against walls and stairways or wandering aimlessly from dumpster to dumpster. All were heavily drugged and in most cases incapable of even the simplest movement.
The irony of it all that morning was that not three blocks away 300,000 people were cheering and clapping as the Stampede parade made its way down 9 Avenue. All were oblivious to the harsh reality of this heartbreaking element of the city core just blocks away from them.
At one point I came across an ambulance in a back alley where it was clear there was a revival being attempted. Nearby a frail, obviously impaired woman, was pacing up and down the street across from the incident, no doubt in distress about whomever they were trying to save.
We hear occasional government statistics and with it comes calls for more to be done so that these terrible unacceptable losses are dealt with somehow. This April Alberta recorded its worst month ever with a staggering 179 people lost mostly to an illegal drug supply contaminated with fentanyl. 76 of those were in Calgary and the total in Alberta to the end of April is 613 people. It may very well be that the ambulance encounter I witnessed that day was all in vain. As I stood there transfixed I realized that every single one of them is worth saving and had a family, hopes and dreams.
I recently interviewed a remarkable First Nations woman named Beatrice Little Mustache, an amazing soul who has worked tirelessly for 44 years with First Nations in mental health and child welfare areas. She was recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at the University of British Columbia for her life-long contribution to her people. Beatrice shared with me that the loss of life with the Piikani First Nation is seven times what is happening in the non-native population in Alberta. Seven times! It made my physically ill to hear that and to hear that last year that meant over 60 First Nations lost their lives, mostly to drugs, on that small reserve. I saw in her eyes the deep heartache at the loss of her Blackfoot people. Undaunted, Beatrice will never give up trying to stop this epidemic.
So as I stood in amongst all this wonderful artwork emulating all aspects of our society I realized that every single one of those individuals on the streets, crippled by addiction and having no hope, deserved better from us as a society. As I wandered back from in amongst all these beautiful murals I was filled with a deep sadness. We cannot and must not stand by while this epidemic continues to steal lives day after day.
Author’s Note: All 180 mural images are on line along with a map of their locations and can be found at yycbump.ca.