The Calgary Atlas Project: Remapping Calgary 

Join me on a surprising journey to a place where two rivers meet. As your guide, I write from a table cluttered with maps. Not simple geography, these maps are multi-layered, multi-vectored and multiplying. And they are invaluable articles to time travellers looking to traverse our city multidimensionally. 

The Calgary Institute for the Humanities of the University of Calgary initiated the Calgary Atlas Project in 2019 to shine a light on some of Calgary’s forgotten or overlooked histories through these maps with smart art and detailed text. Each is written by community insiders and illustrated by artists from our region. 

Nine maps have been produced so far: A Queer Map: A Guide to the LGBTQ+ History of Calgary; First Nations Stampede; Calgary’s Art Underground; Calgary Goes to the Movies! A Historical Guide; Workers Stand Up: Calgary Labour History Map; “RING-A-DING-DONG DANDY” A Map of Stampede Wrestling; and The Animals Guide to Calgary are available at certain bookstores and cultural spots. 

Upcoming maps will illustrate waves of immigration, Jewish history, alternative energies, and sports and diversity. 

When I unfold my copy of Calgary’s Art Underground map, I see blobs of colour that clash in places and blend in others. Words, shapes, lines, patterns, and symbols swirl. Some images are familiar, some not. Some conjure memory. I rotate it once, then again as I try to find bearing. 

Apparently, the artists who created the graphics handled it in a similar way. The Altlas Project website describes the collaborative working process of Drunken Paw — the three-person art collective comprised of Mark Dicey, Leslie Sweder and Janet Turner: “Three separate drawings are rotated between the three artists with each taking part in the conversation by reacting to what the others have previously expressed … They land on some triangulation of a shared experience, the residual effect of this being a lush landscape both of their collective subconscious and the environment they are working in.” 

Their process echoes how one can experience Calgary’s artworld in conversation. 

On the flip side of the map, writer Diane Sherlock assists us with guidance to 56 locations from the past and present. We find our path and establish North on the sprawl. 

I know a little about some of these locations, nothing of others. Some spark conversation, memories and even nostalgia.

Some examples: performers and audiences continued to shout out to the Night Gallery for nearly a decade after its closing; Wreck City went viral, attracting thousands to explore art interventions in condemned spaces; The Arbour Lake Sghool collective built large inhabitable cardboard structures and dug trenches in their Arbour Lake front yard, much to their neighbours’ distress. 

The map is titled Calgary’s Art Underground, and I suppose the underground refers to a place that is difficult to access. Visibility has been emerging artists’ greatest challenge. 

Prompted by the map, I share a triangle of stories, tales from our little-known history that deserve legendary status. 

Our first story is set at the Burns Visual Arts Society, one of Calgary’s longest running artist studio collectives. Its early days are a fascinating story of survival and politics. 

Once upon a time, a heroic TV journalist named Ralph Klein lent support and provided a media platform to save struggling artists evicted by the City. It was the dead of winter, and they had rented studio space in the Burns Building, then a run-down heritage building. 

Artist Wayne Gilles recalls that Klein “met with us informally to update us on the City’s plans and helped get the message of ‘young artists abused by civic government’ out.” 

They were able to delay eviction and move to the nearby Neilson Block. 

Gilles remembers they appreciated Klein’s help, which they “innocently accepted as altruism. It was only later that it was clear that both Petrasuk and Klein were trying to undermine the newly elected Ross Alger with the intention of running for mayor themselves … Klein won the next election as mayor of Calgary.” The hero journalist became civic regent for nine years and reigning provincial king for 14. 

Second up, have you heard of our famous art fire? It took place in the space that became the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, which was at The Provincial Institute of Technology and Arts, now Alberta University of the Arts. An artwork was performed by internationally acclaimed L.A. artist Chris Burden, Do You Believe in Television? In February 1976, hay was scattered up three flights of the parkade stairwell and a television set at the base. 

Once crowds gathered, a voice from the screen pronounced, “Do you believe in television?” and a hand was shown on screen lighting fire to the hay, as fire was also set to the hay. 

It is said the flames nearly reached the second floor before onlookers acted. 

The experimental artwork seemed a test of what the crowd would do. 

Our third stop is in collective memory. Calgary has a rich history of transforming domestic spaces into exhibit spaces. Existence of these marvellous and spontaneous art occurrences indicates fertile cultural topography. Samples on our map include: the Haight Gallery, Straw Gallery, The Lily, Mary’s Place, Carpet ‘N Toast, United Congress, and the New Edward Gallery. 

At the last on this list, I recollect nearly a 100 art goers encountered at an opening in the basement suite. 

Another past visitor, Stacy Koehler, recalls owner Edward Nyikes: “He always had interesting people around him, and I always felt like I was getting a peek inside a creative person’s world.” 

Two of the maps in the series are now used in remarkable but unexpected ways. Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Calgary Board of Education (CBE) high schools use A Queer Map: A Guide to the LGBTQ+ History of Calgary as a tool for teen mental health. First Nations Stampede Map, is now in Grade 2 classrooms in the Calgary Catholic School system as an aid to teach math. 

The master cartographer behind this wide-reaching project is Jim Ellis, the Director of the Calgary Institute for the Humanities. Thanks to him for this treasury of art, history, and diversity. 

Pick up a map, keep it as a poster, and use it to adventure in this place where we live. 

Atlas Project maps are available at the Bookshop at Esker Foundation, Shelf Life Books, The Next Page, Pages Books, Owl’s Next Books and Lougheed House.