Mural project by Calgary artist shot down by Vernon city council, some locals

The images that were set to be murals, like the one shown in this mock-up, were created by Calgary artist Katie Green, featuring and collaborating with Vernon residents. (Submitted by Katie Green - image credit)
The images that were set to be murals, like the one shown in this mock-up, were created by Calgary artist Katie Green, featuring and collaborating with Vernon residents. (Submitted by Katie Green - image credit)

A Calgary artist's mural series exploring living with mental health challenges will not be installed in a northern Okanagan city despite initial support by city council, after some locals deemed the work unwelcome.

Last year, artist Katie Green — who previously installed murals in Calgary's East Village featuring city residents wearing masks — was approached by the Vernon Public Art Gallery to create something similar for the city.

Green, who uses masks in much of her work, partnered with local people from Vernon who have lived experiences with mental health challenges. They worked together to co-create the images for the murals.

"Masks are a really incredible tool to explore the self," Green previously told CBC News about her work.

The result of this new project was Behind the Mask, a series of 10 images featuring people Green connected with through the Turning Points Collaborative Society in Vernon wearing masks they selected, and helped make out of paper mâché.

For the project, the art gallery secured more than $72,500 in grants to facilitate the creation of the masks, hold an exhibition and eventually turn the art into murals across the municipality across 10 locations.

Initially, Vernon city council pledged $33,000 in funding for the project, and several municipally owned locations across the city for the art to be displayed.

However, this past week council pulled the plug on their support after weighing public feedback they received on the art.

Heated debate

For some, like those who signed the online petition entitled "Say no to Vernon 'scary' new murals," the Behind the Mask series made signatories "uncomfortable." Other comments called the images "creepy."

That petition garnered over 4,100 signatories. A  counter-petition supporting the murals has more than 1,700 signatures.

Green says she's unsurprised her works elicit different reactions. She thinks art plays an important role in making us curious about ourselves, and how we react to what we're seeing.

"Get curious about things like, 'What about this is eliciting this reaction inside me, and what does that mean for me?'" she said.

Sarah Lillemo is the harm reduction coordinator with the Cammy LaFleur Street Clinic who helped select the participants with the Behind the Mask series.

Submitted by Katie Green
Submitted by Katie Green

She said after seeing them create and connect with their images, it's saddening to see the murals halted.

"They were told that city council approved this. To go back on that decision felt really disheartening and frustrating … they felt like it was them that was being rejected."

Vernon resident Patrick Vance said that it was the size, amount and similar imagery of the murals made him oppose their installation.

"A lot of us felt that it was something that sidelined our local artistic community, and really didn't fit with the character of what we consider the murals that we've come to know and love," said Vance.

Julia Malanson, another long-time Vernon resident, believes some of the opposition to the murals came from people uncomfortable with the subject matter.

"It's important to our community. It's not whether we agree with it. It's not whether we like it," she said.

"I think if it makes you uncomfortable, that's an opportunity to engage with it and learn more about it."

Public Engagement

After the petition against the murals gained traction, and the city received a deluge of emails and phone calls on the subject, they asked the Vernon Public Art Gallery to conduct a public engagement session on the murals.

The gallery found that of the 353 viewers of the Behind the Mask gallery, 65 per cent were in favour of the mural project going forward.

"There needs to be a better system for decision-making on public art," said Dauna Kennedy, executive director of the Vernon Public Art Gallery, in a statement last week.

Submitted by Katie Green
Submitted by Katie Green

CBC News reached out to a representative for Vernon's city council, but did not receive an interview.

"I think there's been process errors made from the beginning," Vernon Mayor Victor Cumming said at a city council meeting last week, which ultimately led to pulling funding.

"The community has been clear, overwhelmingly clear, that this is something at that size, at that scale, at that number — absolutely, no."

Both Green and the art gallery have said there is the potential the murals could end up being installed in another community, but nothing has been confirmed.

"At the core of this project, it's a community-driven project that uses the mask as a tool to explore identity self-expression," said Green.