Five yellow and red butterflies take flight over a pine-laden valley. A lion’s face morphs out of a bouquet of flowers. And a dog in an orange kimono peers through a black eye mask while striking a karate punch. These are just a few of the scenes that await you on a mural tour of Castlegar.

In the past five years, over a dozen murals have appeared on the sides of buildings in Castlegar and it makes for a fun afternoon outing to see them all. Many were created by artist Matt Hillman (aka Matty Kakes) who lives just north of the city in Pass Creek. For example, he did most of the artwork that appears on the Maggie’s Mug building near the parking area at 4th St. and 11th Ave. He’s also responsible for the first air-purifying mural in Canada, located on the side of the ARC Youth Programs building at 625 Columbia Ave. That particular piece was painted using Airlite, a new form of paint that has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-mould properties. It also acts as an air purifier by using sunlight to activate a process called photocatalysis, a chemical reaction caused by light, and eliminates air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and volatile organic compounds.

We caught up with Matty to ask about the burgeoning scene in Castlegar and to discuss where his inspiration comes from and what’s involved in the process.

“Castlegar feels like a new frontier,” Matty says about the local mural culture. “It’s an exciting time and an exciting area right now and I’m looking forward to seeing where this all goes.” Matty has always been into drawing and art but it wasn’t until he moved to the West Kootenay region from Victoria that he started getting more into outdoor murals. After getting a teaching job at the Selkirk College campus in Castlegar and settling in Pass Creek he began to notice all the bare walls around the city and came to appreciate there was an opportunity.

Around the same time Matty was appreciating all the blank canvases in the city, one of the first murals went up on the Recharge Fuel and Fitness building downtown in 2020. It was a colour-saturated depiction of riders on horseback done by Jean Paul Langlois, a celebrated Métis artist from Vancouver Island. “After that people began to appreciate the art form and I started talking to community members and business owners and eventually got some funding [to do more murals],” Matty says.

Soon murals began appearing all over town by such local artists as Matty, Bryn Stevenson, Mercedes Kaydence, and Tyler Toews and visiting artists such as Peter Allen from Victoria. When asked to describe his workflow, Matty says he begins by getting permission from the business owner, collaborates on ideas, and secures the funding. Then it’s time to paint. “My approach tends to have an element of freestyle to it. I’ll do some planning but the rest is an organic process,” he says. “This is influenced by my love of graffiti and street art: you have to be quick and confident to get your work up in areas that may or may not be sanctioned. Some mural artists will use a more exact process in which they project a design onto a wall or use a grid method to lay out the image as exact as possible.”

Since starting his foray into mural painting in Castlegar, Matty has been featured in Owl magazine and he has the distinction of creating one of the first air-purifying pieces of public art in Canada. “I had heard about this special sustainable low-environmental-impact air-purifying paint manufactured in Italy. So I looked into it and had a lot of back and forth with the company. It’s cool because the paint actually absorbs carbon dioxide and other pollutants out of the air but it’s tricky to use. It’s a roller paint that requires you to mix the pigment and water together. Then you have a short period of time to use it before it hardens.”

Aside from dealing with finicky substrates, Matty says it can also be challenging on the body to paint murals. “You’re painting these big pieces, doing long swaths with your arms and climbing up and down ladders; it’s physical work and I’m beat afterwards,” he says, but then qualifies that it’s totally worth it. “The murals all over Castlegar are a compliment to Sculpture Walk and prove this is a really artistic city.”

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