Over the next eight years, workers of BC Hydro’s Site C Clean Energy Project will walk through the lobby of the Site C Two Rivers Lodge, their new home near Fort St. John, built by ATCO Two Rivers. And as those new employees walk into the lodge, they’ll be greeted by artwork from regional indigenous artists, highlighting local talent, landscapes and wildlife.
Nineteen of those pieces were created by a single artist: Shirley Babcock of Prince George, British Columbia. Babcock recalls the experience that first drew her to painting, when her sister in-law took her on a yacht tour. Then, still employed in IT, Babcock found herself in the middle of an unexpectedly enormous pod of orcas.
“We were surrounded,” she says. “The yacht operator called the coast guard, he’d never seen so many in 20 years.“
Enthralled, Babcock went home and, with the help of books that her sister-in-law had bought for her, began using acrylic paints to capture the orcas in a style similar to the Kwakwaka'wakw people of northern Vancouver Island.
“I created my own style,” she explains, “even though I used the traditional elements.”
Now, 11 years later, despite having had no previous experience as an artist, she’s expanded her painting practice into a business that sells to galleries around the province. She researches new techniques, follows the guidance of mentor artists and has moved onto other mediums. In addition to painting on canvas, she has also painted on functional pieces like traditional drums using moose, elk and deer hide, one of which was presented to the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston at the Canada Winter Games in 2015.
The pieces currently hanging in the Two Rivers Lodge represent some of Babcock’s favourite subjects: local wildlife, like orcas and grizzly bears. And while her practice has evolved, its core remains in her connection to those animals, which she also sees as a way of connecting to her ancestral roots in the Tsawataineuk First Nation.
“They’re really connected to the animals, to their spirits,” says Babcock. “When we leave Vancouver and get off the ferry, I continue to look at the ocean, because that’s where the whales are.”
Now, with her art within the walls of the lodge that will house hundreds of workers, she hopes it will give them the same sense of connection that she looks for in her own art.
“That’s what I was hoping,” she says. “That the workers would go in and see the wildlife. I see my work as a reminder.”
Unfortunately for Babcock, though, leaving that reminder to others means letting the pieces go.
“I like to see where my pieces are, because every time I sell one, I miss it,” says Babcock. “So, I’ve got to make another one.”
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