Kal Barteski paints polar bears — with emotion.
Churchill Wild had the great pleasure of attending Barteski’s recent Polar Bear Polar Bear exhibition in Winnipeg. We’ve been around polar bears for most of our lives, so we were hoping for something special.
Barteski delivered with an amazing display of polar bear paintings that mesmerized and held our gaze, just as a live polar bear would. The quality of Barteski’s work was somewhat expected based on the many accolades listed on her Web site, but titles and accomplishments don’t always translate into world-class art. In this case, they did.
Polar Bear Polar Bear was a follow-up to Polar Bear, the first show Barteski did 18 months ago, and we might not have seen any of her paintings if not for a serious health issue.
“The plan was never to sell,” said Barteski. “I just really enjoy painting polar bears. The paintings were piling up in my studio. At the same time I found out I needed a complicated spinal surgery. The only place they could do the surgery was in Germany. That meant I had to pay for the whole thing myself, which was going to be around $70,000. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to raise that money. My husband pointed out that I had 30 polar bear paintings and that I could sell them, but I didn’t want to.
“I really didn’t think people liked polar bears enough and I didn’t think my paintings were good enough. So I arranged to have the paintings in that first show and people came from Japan, Australia, California and other faraway places. In seven days I sold 28 of my polar bear paintings, more than enough to go have my surgery. And it went really well. It was amazing. Within no time I was back painting polar bears like crazy.
“I have a whole bunch of new paintings that I have only been able to paint because of that surgery. So I feel this huge amount of gratitude towards polar bears, and the people who love polar bears. Because of all of those people, I can still paint polar bears.”
Trip to Churchill
A TEDx Speaker; published author; Manitoba Woman Entrepreneur of the Year; named one of CBC Manitoba’s Future 40 Leaders Under 40; a Future Leaders of Manitoba finalist; Number 36 on Ace Burpee’s Top 100 Most Fascinating Manitobans list; and featured on Animal Planet’s Wild Obsession while visiting polar bears in Churchill; Barteski’s list of accomplishments is many and varied, but it was her alone time with a polar bear and the trip to Churchill that really took her art to the next level.
While attending Red River Community College as a Graphic Design student during the 1980s, Barteski spent many hours alone with Debby, the world’s oldest polar bear, at Assiniboine Park Zoo.
“At Red River we had to go to places like the zoo and do live sketches,” said Barteski. “And animals are super hard to draw because they don’t sit still. I found myself at the polar bear enclosure, because Debby, the polar bear that was there at the time, was uber still. I just fell in love with her, got to know a lot about her and her keepers, her habits, and I went back every week, sometimes more than once, until she died.”
In 2011, Barteski posted a larger polar bear painting on her blog. A few hours later Animal Planet called. They were looking for people infatuated with particular animals for their show Wild Obsession. They were filming these people as they met their favourite animals in the wild for the first time.
“It was a free trip,” said Barteski. “So I went for it, and it absolutely changed the trajectory of what I had been working on up to that point. I saw one polar bear while on camera, but I actually saw a mom and two cubs when they didn’t have the cameras on. So that was pretty cool. I was impressed. Everything about Churchill I just loved. The town itself, the characters, it was kind of like the Wild West. I really just loved it. After that I was just like ‘Oh, I’m just into these polar bears.’ I am fully obsessed now.”
The Churchill trip also led to a 2013 TEDx talk by Barteski entitled Art of a Polar Bear.
“Someone saw the polar bear documentary Animal Planet did and contacted me,” said Barteski. “They said I should do a TEDx talk and it was super fun. Attendance was great.”
The Churchill trip was the culmination of a journey that began early in life for Barteski. She actually sold her first paintings at the age of eight while growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She moved to Winnipeg at the age of 17 and continued her artful development process at Red River Community College.
“Painting was really the only job I’d ever had,” said Barteski. “But everybody was like, ‘You can’t be an artist. That will never work. You need to have a skill.'”
Graphic Design was the closest thing to art that Barteski could find, so she signed up at Red River Community College and did her best to put herself through school selling what she created.
“I’ve always been a wildlife painter and in the sort of hierarchy of artists, wildlife painter is at the bottom, with like, flowers,” said Barteski. “It’s not cool. When I came to Winnipeg I really wanted to be cool, so I really tried to minimize how many animals I painted, even though that was my thing.”
Woman Entrepreneur of the Year
In 2005 Barteski self-published a book entitled Love Life – Collected, which featured tiny paintings and drawings by Barteski. Thanks in part to an email list developed over the years by Barteski, the book sold out and won her the 2005 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Manitoba.
“Basically in 1998 I realized I wasn’t doing as much painting as I wanted to, and I was in school,” said Barteski. “I was painting to put myself through school but I wasn’t painting for myself. I was painting commission work, so I decided once a week I would paint a little tiny painting, no matter how big or small it was, get that done, write something about it and then send it to a group of friends through email.
“The list started out with my Mom and my two best friends. Every week the list would grow. By the time I had reached 247 weeks consecutively without missing any it was up to around 10,000 people.”
#kbscript The Accidental Income Stream
Barteski is now well known as a script artist (#kbscript hashtag), but that was actually an accidental income stream that began in 2005.
“I always did have nice penmanship,” said Barteski. “And because I’m a painter, I’m comfortable with a brush, so I scripted something on the back of napkin. The words were ‘be true to who you are.’ I thought that was cool.”
Barteski posted a photo of her scripted napkin on her blog and thought nothing of it until someone called one day and said they had seen her work in Vancouver. They thought it was quite exciting.
“Uhm… what work?” was Barteski’s response.
The woman sent Barteski a photo of what she had seen online and it turned out that someone had taken the image off her blog and was selling it.
“I did a reverse image search,” said Barteski. “I found out that over time, my little ‘be true to who you are‘ had been ripped close to 2 1/2 million times. It was being sold on all kinds of apparel, it was on Web sites and in magazines, it was being overlaid on porn videos. I decided that people wouldn’t take it if they didn’t think it was cool, so I thought I’m just going to do so much of this script stuff so that every time somebody sees it they’re going to think that it’s mine.”
As one of the commenters intimated on Barteski’s blog, there was a certain irony in people stealing “be true to who you are,” but the idea to put her script out en masse turned out to be a good one.
“It has definitely been very popular,” said Barteski. “And it has brought me some really unique opportunities. Unfortunately now people think I’m a script artist that has a polar bear problem. I’m actually just a polar bear artist with a little bit of a script problem.”
Barteski now holds regular #kbscript POPUPS in a variety of venues. People bring her whatever quotes or words or things that they’d like her to pen, they pick a piece of paper from the different colours and sizes, and Barteski creates their script right in front of them.
“It’s really fun,” said Barteski. “It’s a chance for me to engage with people and talk to them. I can give everybody a really great price, because I don’t have to co-ordinate shipping and packaging and all kinds of crazy stuff. They just walk out with their new art. And it’s meaningful for people because they always bring something that means something to them. I’ve done wedding vows, 18 different languages, baby names, special inside jokes, quotes from The Big Lebowski, NWA lyrics, anything, anything at all. It’s really fun.”
Barteski also does #kbscript over baby handprints and dog paw prints.
“They’ve become really popular,” said Barteski.
A Different Kind of Polar Bear Fund
Barteski started a Polar Bear Fund with the Winnipeg Foundation after being asked on numerous occasions where people should give money in an effort to help the polar bears.
“I didn’t honestly know where to give your money,” said Barteski. “After I fell down the polar bear rabbit hole I really started to see the politics and all of the other things that are happening. I thought, you know, I want to have a place where people can give money. Where I can sit with a group of polar bear people and talk about what we’d like to see and possibly fund small projects.
“I just wanted to see things happening locally, because I don’t think people are doing a whole lot on a local level. It’s fine to donate to Polar Bears International but that goes to Montana and gets distributed among all these different ideas and projects that they have. And I’m sure they have a lot of merit. I just wanted something that made people feel like they were being listened to on a local level. I thought that would be a nice way to leave a legacy, supporting Manitoba.
“The benefit to working with the Winnipeg Foundation is that they’re incredibly supportive and they’ve been really great at helping me promote the fund. The money stays in Manitoba. It goes right into the Winnipeg Foundation. When we raise $20,000 in total the fund will be in perpetuity, so that every year there will be granting dollars available.
“We’re about half way there. I’m thinking about another event to promote the fund after the (Polar Bear Polar Bear) show, something that will tug at people’s heart strings.”
Barteski has been talking to the people of Churchill on a regular basis about ideas and projects that might be funded by the Polar Bear Fund. She’s also got an amazing group of polar bear friends that live close to her in Winnipeg.
“It’s an interesting group of people,” said Barteski. “And I would really just like to sit down with everyone and ask the question, ‘What’s important? How can we do something in Churchill?'”
One of the ideas discussed was polar bear trap cameras, but Manitoba Conservation may already be going ahead with them. Trap cameras would solve some of the problems with regards to mothers and cubs being separated. After the mother gets caught in a trap, the defenseless cub eventually wanders off, but with a trap camera, Conservation officials would get a text on their phone saying the trap has been set off. They would then be able to check the trap quickly, before the cub leaves.
“I do believe that was one of their big projects,” said Barteski. “I did hear that from the Churchill town council, which is just awesome. So there are all kinds of projects. This one is pretty simple and it would get mobilized.”
New Projects: The Churchill Seawalls Festival
Barteski will be overseeing and coordinating a massive mural festival in Churchill from June 16-26, 2017. Five national artists will join local artists and community members at the Churchill Seawalls Festival to work on very large scale public art murals to celebrate Churchill and the surrounding area, with a highlight on ocean health.
“It’s really cool,” said Barteski. “There are a lot of abandoned buildings around Churchill and I don’t think that they’re going to be taken down anytime soon. So I think they should be used for good, to share information in a beautiful artful way that inspires the viewers and the community. It has huge potential. It creates another avenue of tourism. We have people who have never heard of Churchill that are lining up to come. They’re just itching to come for the polar bears, the belugas and the people.
“It’s going to be fantastic. And after it’s all done, brochures will be made that allow visitors to do a self-guided tour. Or they can contact the tour companies for a guided tour. One of my talents is to take tough places and make them awesome. And I want this to leave Churchill with some kind of awesome thank you.”
Family, Future and Tears for Polar Bears
Barteski says she has three daughters aged 6, 8 and nine, a great husband and two fat little dogs.
“The girls are interested,” said Barteski. “They come to work at the gallery. They’re at the popups. I think it’s really good for them to see someone with a career that isn’t in an office. Not 9-5, just sort of self-guided, and I think that’s really interesting.”
Barteski has no plans for the immediate future when it comes to painting polar bears or selling her work. Still, we wondered if she was ever a “starving artist.”
“I get asked that question a lot,” said Barteski. “I think it’s just in your attitude. I’ve never been a starving artist. And I’ve never been anything else. And I definitely haven’t been supported by anyone. I just really love what I do. And I really love identifying opportunities. I work really hard. And I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Barteski spends a lot of time looking at polar bears, but something else that really fascinates her is the reactions from the different people who come to view her work.
“When regular art people come through and they haven’t spent time looking at polar bears, they’re just sort of like, okay, beautiful, next,” said Barteski. “But when polar bear people come, from the zoo, or biologists, or the tour people, I love watching them look at the polar bears, because if they like them, then I know it’s a good job.”
“I have a deep love for polar bears,” said Barteski in the description of her TEDx talk. “I am drawn to their indescribable beauty and their genius creativity. They are powerful, vulnerable and mysterious. They are national, cultural and spiritual icons. Playful, yet dangerous. Strong, yet in peril. They have become part of my artistic journey and in an effort to understand how to save them – I think they may be able to save us.”
Wild Obsession’s Polar Bears: Kings of the North, aired on December 18, 2012. Late in the show, Barteski was taken to Gordon Point on the Hudson Bay coast, the place where the ashes of her longtime friend Debby the polar bear had been spread years earlier. Barteski’s eyes welled up…
Those tears are now in her paintings.