Back Alley Arctic - Atlas Obscura

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Back Alley Arctic

A residential service road transformed into a menagerie of larger-than-life paintings of iconic Arctic wildlife. 


The city of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, is known for its prolific street art and building murals. Yet, no art installation is more magical than that found in the quiet residential neighborhood of Wolseley. The artwork comprises a collection of Brobdingnagian animal images that decorate both sides of the rear service lane between Canora and Ethelbert Streets. All the animals depicted are those found in the Arctic, and they adorn garage doors, fences, walls, curbs, and the backs of houses in areas reserved for parked cars and rubbish cans.

The paintings are the work of Canadian artist and Winnipeg resident Kal Barteski. Her interest in drawing polar bears first surfaced in the 1980s when in design school. While mastering wildlife drawing, Barteski spent hours at the Assiniboine Park Zoo observing and sketching Debby, the world’s oldest polar bear. She visited her almost weekly until Debby died in 2008.

By 2011, when Barteski first visited Churchill, Manitoba, the self-titled “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” polar bears had become her life’s passion. In 2017, she led and curated a public art project in Churchill. The “SeaWalls Churchill” project features outdoor murals by 18 artists, and it intends to bring attention to the struggles of the tiny Arctic town perched on the western edge of Hudson Bay.

Barteski wanted to contribute her own art to the Churchill effort, but she had not previously painted an outdoor piece nor one as large as a building. She resolved to practice on her garage door, which she embellished with an enormous polar bear head. Her neighbors so loved the painting that they asked her to decorate their property, too. She agreed to do so at no charge, on the condition that all the paintings featured Arctic animals. Her neighbors happily agreed, and “Back Alley Arctic” was born.

The Wolseley murals took Barteski over 400 hours to complete and feature 41 arctic animals. The depictions include beluga whales, a wolf, a caribou, puffins, narwals, foxes, ptarmigans, musk ox, walrus, and several ubiquitous polar bears. Rendered in exterior latex paint, the paintings feature Barteski’s trademark drips and splotches that symbolize imperfection. Most of the animals featured are on the Endangered Species List and classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Barteski’s artwork decorates both sides of the alleyway, between Canora and Ethelbert Streets and south of Westminster Avenue. On one end, a giant polar bear face gazes at a huge snowy owl gliding across a garage door at the opposite end. In between is a parade of other Arctic animals decorating doors, curbs, and fences. Keen-eyed visitors will also find smaller pieces tucked into serendipitous places—such as a tiny polar bear cub walking along the bottom of a chain link fence or a bevy of snow-white ptarmigan lining a curb. Barteski’s art is easily viewed on foot or by bicycle, and the residents, on whose property the work is displayed, welcome visitors and passersby.

The great white sea bears remain the focal point of Barteski’s career and a portfolio that includes thousands of sketches and line drawings, over 100 paintings, and more than ten murals of polar bears. She is the founder of the Polar Bear Fund, a non-profit organization that raises money for conservation. Beyond the “Back Alley Arctic,” Barteski’s other polar bear murals can be seen at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the Winnipeg International Airport, and several locations in Churchill, including the façade of the infamous Polar Bear Holding Facility, known affectionately as the “Polar Bear Jail.”

Know Before You Go

The paintings can be found in the alley between Canora and Ethelbert Streets, situated in the section between Wolseley and Westminster Avenues. 

The art is on private property, so please be respectful. Driving and parking on the alleyway are reserved for residents, but ample nearby street parking is available.

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August 24, 2023

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