By Steve Hubrecht
Downtown Invermere is looking a lot more colourful this summer. The vibrancy comes from a trio of new pieces of public art — all murals — decorating several prominent buildings.
The first of the murals to go up was ‘The Spirit of Invermere’, which local artist James Wyper created on the northeastern-most wall of Frater Landing (on the Valhalla Pure Outfitters store) over a period of three weeks in June. The past few weeks have seen two more murals, both by local artist Kelsey Van Raay — one on the wall of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 71 Windermere District, which began a few weeks ago and is now nearly complete, and a third on the northern and eastern walls of ION2 Progression Suspension on 7th Avenue (Invermere’s main street).
Last week’s issue of the Pioneer touched on Van Raay’s Legion mural and the Invermere mural program that helped fund it through the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI), but what about the other two murals, and what about the artists who created the art?
‘The Spirit of Invermere’ essentially kickstarted the Invermere mural project. Wyper has been living in Invermere for more than three years and had wanted to do some kind of public art to give back to the community. He got talking with Frater Landing and Valhalla Pure co-owner Jay Balabas, who coincidentally had also been thinking about creating a mural. Together they approached the District of Invermere to find out if some funding for public art was available. As it turns out, it was, through the RMI.
‘The Spirit of Invermere’ depicts mountains, a forest, a lake, and sweeping, sun-filled sky in a colourful, almost geometric pattern of forms. It’s a style Wyper, who has been a professional artist for 30 years, loosely calls an “abstract, architectural landscape.”
It’s hard to describe in words what that looks like, aside to say the end result is eye-catching in an almost hypnotic way. If you go check the five foot-by-12 foot piece out in person be prepared to stand gazing longer than you expected.
Wyper explained that this style grew out of a series of works he began about four or five years ago, titled the ‘Sanctuary Series’. Those were initially much more abstract, he said, “and gradually over the years that’s evolved from simple shapes into something that’s more clearly a landscape.”
He and his partner Marlo Johnson (who is also a full-time professional artist) were previously based on Pender Island. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in North America, they were in Los Angeles for an arts show. Seeking a respite from the chaos, they lived for a time in a motorhome, before eventually deciding to settle in Invermere. Throughout the pandemic Wyper’s ‘Sanctuary Series’ took on new meaning.
The longer Wyper and Johnson stayed in Invermere, the more they liked it. Wyper was born nearby in Kimberley, but grew up in Saskatoon and has since lived all over Western Canada. ‘The Spirit of Invermere’ mural is meant to encapsulate “the friendly, welcoming spirit of this place and reflect that back to the people,” Wyper told the Pioneer. “The (public) response has been wonderfully kind and people have told me it helps brighten up the town. It’s been a real honour to work on it.”
Balabas told the Pioneer that he’s delighted to have the mural on his store’s wall, saying “we’ve gotten a lot of great comments about it. People think it’s great.”
Van Raay has had similar feedback about her murals. Many people have stopped to talk to her as she works on them, telling her they add colour to the town, she explained. Part of the reason Van Raay and her husband relocated to the Columbia Valley from Calgary was that they feel Invermere is still in the process of shaping its identity as a community, and she said she feels lucky to be able to contribute to that, in at least some way, with her murals.
The mural on the Legion wall is 21-feet wide by 15-to-16-feet high (Van Raay has been up on scaffolding to do the upper parts of it) and features enormous, brilliant red poppies, a burst of sunlight (either sunrise or sunset), and a quote of remembrance. The top of the flowers stretch above the heads of most passers-by, which Van Raay outlined was purposefully done. “It means to make you feel that you are literally walking among the poppies, as though you are right there in it (the field of poppies),” she told the Pioneer.
The Legion mural is a combination of spray paint and outdoor latex paint. When the Pioneer spoke to Van Raay last week, she had been working on it for two weeks and estimated it would take at least five more full days of work to complete it.
Van Raay’s mural at ION2 Progression Suspension uses similar material (spray paint and outdoor latex paint) but on a different shaped ‘canvas’: it occupies a nine-foot-high by 20-to-30 feet space that wraps across two different walls, each facing a different direction. And the end result is quite different too: the ION2 mural depicts a landscape of hills, a lake, trees and mountains (one of them is clearly the iconic Mount Nelson that rears up to the west of Invermere) in hues of blue, green and brown.
“It’s very nature based,” said Van Raay. She began work on this mural mid-last week, but since the stucco on ION2 is much smoother than that on the Legion wall, work is progressing much more quickly and she estimated she may finish the ION2 mural as early as this coming weekend.
Van Raay grew up in the Chatham-Kent area of southwestern Ontario, on a flower and tree farm, in a family that is creative on both sides. She studied fine art at the University of Guelph for five years, before moving out west to live in the mountains at Jasper. From there she ended up in Calgary for almost a decade, working a series of jobs (at the Calgary Zoo, for the Calgary Stampede, and with an entertainment agency) that allowed her to be at least somewhat creative. At the same time, she continued to pursue art, turning her passion into a professional career.
Then, propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and pulled by the lure of an outdoor lifestyle, she and her husband left the big city for the East Kootenay. They were initially drawn to Golden (“it does have the most epic ski hill,” said Van Raay) but instead landed in the Columbia Valley (“there’s more charm here, and it has an up-and-coming feeling that we wanted to be part of,” she said).
Like Wyper, Van Raay is grateful for the opportunity to create murals in Invermere. “The great thing about public art is that it is open and free to anyone. It really does reach the masses, and it really does brighten a place,” she said.
To find out more about James Wyper visit www.jameswyper.com. For more on Kelsey Van Raay, visit kvanraaydesigns.com.