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Alien visitations. Post-apocalyptic riots. Prospecting.

Artist and prospector Walt Humphries’ work runs the gamut.

“I get bored easily,” he said, explaining that he aims to challenge himself with new ideas while depicting daily observations. His exhibit at Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre holds its opening reception on January 16. It’s currently open for public viewing. 

Walt Humphries discusses his art in his home on Jan. 4.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

“I paint what I see, what I feel and what I think about,” Humphries said.

In text accompanying the exhibit, curators Sarah Swan and Bill Braden call it outlier art — talent fostered on the fringes. Humphries agrees. While he had contact with larger art scenes in Toronto, Yellowknife was smaller and a better fit when he arrived in 1969.

Back then, the few artists in town mostly painted fairly traditional landscapes and tourist scenes.

Working on a painting in his trailer, Humphries had to ask, “Why doesn’t anybody paint Yellowknife other than the tourist things?”

He started to paint scenes around town of neighborhoods like Northlands and Old Town, capturing slice-of-life depictions of the growing city with an absurdist bent. They ranged from visiting four-armed aliens sizing up the real estate in Old Town to survivors fending off super-sized mosquitoes with machetes at the boat launch. 

“When I set out to sort of figure out what I wanted to paint, I didn’t want the fine art highbrow stuff. I didn’t want to do landscapes. I didn’t want to do portraits. I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

What interested him more? Comic books and illustrations. Science fiction and other fantasy flourishes, like dinosaurs, took centre stage in much of Humphries’ work. 

“Every painting you do, once you’re done it, you think, ‘oh I could have done that one better,’” he said. “But I don’t like repeating paintings … I want to do something different. Challenge myself.” 

He said he wanted his art to be accessible, allowing a viewer without a degree in it to appreciate it. 

“You could do a painting of downtown Yellowknife and make it really bad. Or you could make it comical,” he said. “Because it’s both. I don’t want to go to one extreme or completely to the other. Because that’s what life’s about it. It’s a mixture of things.”

Observation plays an important role in finding this balance between local history, fantasy, and storytelling. Humpries attributes his eye for detail to a life prospecting to “see these little things that are insignificant and unimportant, because they’re part of life.”

That can draw criticisms. One he’s received is that he included too much litter on the streets, but despite that, Humphries stood by what he saw. Same goes for including too many telephone poles – it was a fact that there are that many in place, and if anything there were too few in his painting.

When prospecting, he said, discoveries are predicated on noticing small clues. 

“If you work in the bush and you’re away from civilization, when you come back into civilization, you notice some things. And you go, ‘What were they thinking? Who thought this was a good idea?’”

Local history also plays a key role. In one of Humphries’ pieces, two girls are depicted paddling a boat. According to Humphries, those are the ghosts of the two Watts sisters who would ferry residents to the liquor store on Latham Island before the causeway was built. 

Cameos from local personalities and characters make regular appearances too, though Humphries prefers to leave it to the viewer to pick them out.

That’s proof of the staying power his pieces have. When the curators put out a call for lost Humphries pieces in April, works came as far Alberta and British Columbia. 

“I like art that tells stories … If you get into it, your mind starts weaving your own story about the painting, which is what I hope for.”

 

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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