“It is a land of striking contrasts . . . a land that drew me like a magnet into its soul.” Author Richmond P. Hobson wrote those words in the first installment of his classic trilogy, 1978’s Grass Beyond the Mountains: Discovering the Last Great Frontier on the North American Continent – words that mirror how the landscape of this vast region and why this is so often reflected in the region’s culture and the works of local artists. Of course, First Nations compositions have been sung and danced around local campfires for thousands of years, and, along with their totems, beadwork and other arts, they often reflect this region’s powerful sense of place.
Then in 1904, Emily Carr roamed the region by “cowpony” and was inspired to paint several landscapes and to write: ”I can never love the Cariboo enough for all she gave me.” Touring the region in 1914 the Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson was equally infatuated, returning in the 1940s to produce works now displayed in galleries worldwide. Modern-day painter Mark Hobson has also long been inspired by the Chilcotin landscape and central coast locations such as Calvert Island, which he painted to raise awareness about keeping the coastline pristine for generations to come. To this end, he and more than 50 of Canada’s most celebrated artists, including painters, poets and writers, published a book titled Canada’s Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-Free Coast.
Modern-day art and nature lovers will want to experience the region’s many galleries, including the Quesnel Art Gallery, one of central BC’s hidden gems, and the city’s ARTrium, featuring many works of award-winning artists in the region. Sometimes galleries are also works of art in their own right, such as the Central Cariboo Arts Centre, which houses a number of artisan groups in a decommissioned fire hall, and the Williams Lake Station House Gallery, a lovingly restored 1920s railway station showcasing pottery, weaving and other visual arts. Similarly noteworthy is the Williams Lake Tourism Discovery Centre, a lodge-style construction features a massive 52ft/15.8m floor-to-ceiling western red cedar harvested in Bella Coola as its centre post, the tree’s 10ft/3m-diameter flared root still intact. The centre also showcases local art such as the towering folk-art-style sculpture So Much to Do and three 17ft/5.18m murals, just a few of many displayed throughout this “Mural Capital of the Cariboo Chilcotin” and part of the August to September Artwalk highlighting all mediums of artistic expression.
Murals depicting historical figures and pioneer life are also displayed on buildings in 100 Mile House. Another arts and culture highlight is the town of Wells, a renowned artist retreat with studios and galleries housed in colourfully painted heritage buildings and a celebrated art school where vacationers can enroll in folk art and music classes. The town’s restored Sunset Theatre also offers a host of professional music, film and theatre retreats, and is in itself a remarkable story. Built in 1934, it showed movies, hosted town hall meetings and dances and, in the 1950s, was used as a morgue. And on the first weekend in August Wells hosts its very popular four-day ArtsWells Festival of all Things Art, hosting performances such as Cariboo Buckeye by Quesnel native Matthew Payne – about an 1860s cattle drive – that is equal parts magic and mystery; musicians and talent from all other artistic disciplines are also on display at the community event, including workshops with nationally recognized artists.
Meanwhile, Barkerville’s Theatre Royal features costumed interpreters so convincing they create the illusion of travelling back the 1860s. The Studio Theatre Society in Williams Lake has staged live theatre (October to June) for the past 60 years. Horsefly’s Arts on the Fly Festival presents music, dance, food and fun in equal measure. The Cariboo is also home to “Camel” Dave Howell, who performs at festivals throughout the West, as does Frank Gleeson, the “Fastest Cowboy Poet in the West” and official cowboy poet of Williams Lake.