‘The fire that became the murals’

In Edmonton’s LRT stations, Carla Rae Taylor and AJA Louden create six massive murals for Treaty 6 to keep reconciliation on-track

Today’s planet of plugged-in people with eyes glued to screens may not visit art galleries very often, and even if they do, they might not look up from their phones. So why not bring the art directly to tens of thousands of people on their way to work?

That’s the goal of Paint the Rails, a grand, multi-venue mural envisioned for six Edmonton LRT stations over the next two years. One is already complete at Churchill station, and the next will wrap itself up seven storeys of stairs inside the University station, becoming a three-dimensional painting that “frames” viewers themselves.

The project is a partnership between the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights (JHC) and Edmonton Transit Service. Maigan van der Giessen, the Creative Lead at JHC, calls herself the “adoptive mother” of the project and in 2017 she secured $15,000 from Edmonton Community Foundation to produce Paint the Rails.

To produce this Canada 150 legacy project in partnership with the City of Edmonton and Edmonton Transit, van der Giessen recruited Edmonton-based artist AJA Louden, mentees Dana Belcourt and Matthew Cardinal, and lead artist Carla Rae Taylor to begin work in 2017 and finish in 2019, the 141st year of Treaty 6.

“I absolutely love art, and I love people’s stories,” says St. Albert-born and Yellowknife-raised Taylor. For her, the dream world and her Dene heritage have long guided her introspection, including through art studies at Penticton’s En’owkin Centre, the University of Victoria, the Pacific Design Academy, and her last five years as art co-ordinator at Edmonton’s iHuman Youth Society.

“A lot of my work has been the retelling of stories,” she says, “whether it’s from my own background, stories I’ve heard from around the world, or things imparted to me from elders or friends. This was a chance to dive into stories from the community.”

The stories arose during eight months in 2017 when van der Giessen, Taylor, and Louden, using an historical timeline of the city to help focus discussions, consulted with Edmonton community members, elders, and knowledge-keepers from a range of cultural communities.

“We had engagement sessions and got to hear the stories and gain input from people on what should be seen in the mural,” explains Taylor, adding that some people described their own pathways through the cataclysm of colonialism and residential schools.

The painting at Churchill station, Returning Home, pays homage to murdered and missing Indigenous women. As Taylor says, listening to community members “was fascinating and touching and moving—at times, to tears, even— and provided a lot of [fuel] for the fire that became the murals.”

Artist AJA Louden, best known for his dynamic street art and graffiti-inspired, colour-saturated portraits, brings his own art creation (which spans from the UK and Spain to Germany and the Czech Republic) to Paint the Rails’ goal of advancing national unity. “Putting Indigenous voices at the centre can serve the end goal of reconciliation,” says Louden, and bridge the “shared heritage to open channels of communication.”

If the artists secure enough funding to complete Paint the Rails, their electrifying murals will undoubtedly power conversation, inspiration, and ideally, reconciliation itself.

Listen to ECF’s interview with Carla Rae Taylor about the Paint the Rails Project on The Well-Endowed Podcast.