Does Nelson need more murals?

Art advocates call on the city to support downtown beautification project

Matty Kakes doesn’t like blank walls.

The Nelson muralist is responsible for a number of vibrant pieces around town, including a large-scale mural of a commissioned phoenix on the backside of Mallard’s, and he thinks the solution to the downtown’s graffiti issue is more of them.

“We live in this world where space is increasingly controlled and regulated, and I think art can be this universal offering in places where not everyone feels welcome,” the artist told the Star, after publishing a letter decrying the city’s relationship to public art.

“You look at a blank wall and you’re not likely to have much of a relationship with it. You may not feel as grounded in your town as you would be otherwise. But when you see pieces of art that naturally inspire reflection, it really brings you into the place more and creates a relationship.”

That’s why the Selkirk College instructor was a little annoyed to see local painter Bill Lelievre’s anti-graffiti project heralded on the front page of the paper. Lelievre covered a large tag on the Medical Arts Building on Baker Street for free in an effort to address concerns about a downtown core he felt had been neglected by city council.

Though Kakes respects that Lelievre’s trying to help out, he disagrees with his worldview when it comes to painting walls.

“I sort of took a critical eye with the article, and the use of the term ‘beautification’ for what amounted to the haphazard application of a single-toned hue in an indiscriminate manner. Beautification? That’s more like neutralization.”

And the best way to ensure that wall doesn’t get tagged again, according to Kakes, is to create something beautiful that vandals won’t want to mess with.

“When a few start going up, people start to realize that this does change the feel of the city. What you get as a result is certainly less graffiti, because people are much less likely to tag a piece of art than a boring blank wall.”

Kakes is adding his voice to a coalition of local art advocates, including the Nelson and District Arts Council’s executive director Sydney Black, who are asking city council to rethink its relationship with the muralist community.

Black thinks the city teaming up with local muralists is a no-brainer.

“We want to have a fully funkified downtown, and to make Nelson a mini-San Fransisco so there’s as many murals in as many places made by as many local artists as possible — and they’re all getting paid. That’s my pie-in-the-sky dream,” she said.

“The arts council has previously been actively involved in creating murals and we would like to continue to cultivate that relationship. So we are going to be seeking a partnership with local muralists in conjunction with the City of Nelson to see what we can further do to beautify our town.”

And though Black, who is also a member of the Cultural Development Committee, has been responsive to Kakes’ concerns, he said the city has been historically combative.

“There have been people working to add true beautification to the city, and they’ve been met with barriers. To hit those roadblocks has been incredibly frustrating. If my letter can spur a movement, a mural movement, I think that would be great.”

But everyone will need to work together.

“This is not all about me, there are lots of artists who want to paint a lot of murals. Public art by definition should be community-based, and that includes everyone. It should include people who think they’re artists and people who don’t think they’re artists, all working together.”

Kakes thinks Mayor Deb Kozak and council should look at mural project examples in other cities, such as Portland or Vancouver, for inspiration.

“I would encourage them to look at what other communities have done, and to have a bit of faith in the artists interested in doing this that they’re going to produce amazing pieces that will spur conversation and attract visitors and add texture, another layer of interest and culture, to our town.”

The effect will be powerful, he said.

“The process is incredibly empowering and can bring a real sense of belonging and unity to our town. And I think that’s exactly what we need right now.”

Will Johnson is the literary representative for the City of Nelson’s Cultural Development Committee.