What do you get when you mix frustration, creative energy, an extra cup of coffee and a threat to our province’s protected areas? In my case, a team of artists defending Alberta parks with their paintbrushes.
In March 2020 the Government of Alberta announced the removal of 164 parks and the closure of 20 campsites and day-use areas, impacting a total of 175 parks and recreation areas. The lack of clarity and consultation left many, including myself, feeling confused and betrayed. These parks helped foster my love for the outdoors and inspired my degree and career in the environmental field. Delisting protected areas can cause irreversible environmental damage. In response, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society alongside the Alberta Environment Network launched their Defend Alberta Parks campaign to raise awareness and encourage Albertans to send letters to their MLAs.
Flashforward to May, into my home-office cluttered with art supplies and stacks of unfinished artwork. In my spare time I create art inspired by the outdoors. I’m certainly no professional, nor had I ever used my art for activism. But the government’s decision and its continued lack of clarity was weighing on me. Due to the pandemic, any gatherings to protest the decision had been postponed. While Defend Alberta Parks had gained traction, and Albertans were spreading the word, there were so many more people to reach. I felt I could channel my frustration and creative energy in support of the cause. I decided to make a commitment: to create one painting for each affected park and donate any sales to CPAWS Northern Alberta (my home chapter) and Defend Alberta Parks. That extra cup of coffee swayed me into posting to social media some videos outlining my “master plan.”
And then the magnitude of the issue and my goal sank in. Since 175 parks were affected, this meant 175 paintings. Uh-oh. But before I had time to second-guess my decision, my phone started to ping. To my surprise, people immediately reached out, offering to donate artwork or spread the word. While this support was reassuring and motivating, it was also intimidating. I now had to follow through. CPAWS also reached out to connect. That was huge. We teamed up to launch Art for Alberta Parks and were off to the races.
What started as an impulsive idea evolved into a grassroots art project whose goal was to foster awareness, share the beauty of Alberta’s wild spaces, and help keep parks public and protected using passion for art.
We planned an online art sale. Word spread and encouragement came from people I’d never met. Still, I had self-doubt, questioning my abilities and the project’s worth. But as the art began to come in my confidence was restored. Seeing how each artist represented the parks gave me bursts of optimism and inspiration. Some told stories of their connection and memories of family outings to parks. People really believed in what we were doing.
In the end, 25 artists created over 80 works to celebrate Alberta’s parks and protected areas. Each came from a different background, contributed an original style or had a different relationship to the issue. Together we raised over $6,000—and nearly sold out within hours! I was shocked. Whatever expectations we’d had were far exceeded.
Did we end up creating a piece of art for every park? No. Was $6,000 enough to reverse the government’s decision? No. But I now realize it was less about the art created or the money raised and more about the people we connected. Art for Alberta Parks created a platform. Whether someone made art, bought art or just shared our posts, they were engaged. And that is so powerful.
We used this project and our passion to speak up for a cause we believe in. And those who bought a piece of art have a lasting reminder of the beauty and importance of these places.
Nakita Rubuliak is the lead organizer of Art for Alberta Parks.