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The art of revival: B.C. painters work for Nile Creek salmon

Restoring salmon habitat is as much an art as it is a science – and nowhere is that more true than on Nile Creek.

The small stream on Vancouver Island, near the community of Bowser, was devastated by the impact of logging 50 years ago and its once prodigious runs of pink salmon dwindled to nothing. Then about two decades ago, local residents started to repair it. They built a small hatchery, dug rearing ponds and slowly began to rebuild the salmon run.

Over the past decade, the Nile Creek Enhancement Society has made huge progress and last year 200,000 salmon returned to spawn in the stream, which is so small you can almost jump across it.

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Art has played a key role in the revival of the salmon.

Ken Kirkby, a painter who lives in a beach cottage just north of Nile Creek, and who paints in an old net shed, has helped raise seed money for the restoration project by donating dozens of paintings over the years.

And five years ago, he organized an event that has now become "the main thing" the society does to raise money.

"I was visiting a friend at the Englishman River gallery when he showed me a little catalogue for an event called Paint by Numbers," he said. "I think it originated with Arts Umbrella on Granville Island, but wherever it came from it struck me right away as a brilliant idea. I thought, hey, we could do that."

And so they did.

Paintings By The Numbers is now an annual event with the Nile Creek Enhancement Society. Over the course of the year, the group gets about 60 works donated by B.C. artists. Featured in the April 26 event this year are paintings by Bruce Muir, Sharon A. Stone, Allan Dunfield, Nana Cook and others, including many by Mr. Kirkby.

The society sells 50 tickets at $500 each. Buying a ticket gives you the opportunity to attend the event, which is usually held in the local community hall.

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"You have an hour to look through the art collection," said Mr. Kirkby, although thumbnail photos of the pieces are posted in advance on the society's website. "We have a hat … the first person whose ticket is pulled gets to choose from all the works, and so it goes."

He said the art pieces are all worth more than $500, so for the participants it is a can't-lose proposition. They not only get a painting or carving, but they donate to salmon restoration too.

"It's an easy sell for us," Mr. Kirkby said. "Honestly, it's like standing on a street corner and saying if you've got $100, I'll give you $1,000."

He said a big part of the draw is the drama that unfolds as the tickets are pulled and people wait anxiously to see whether the piece of art they covet will be there when their turn comes.

"The tension that builds in that room is stunning," said Mr. Kirkby. "That waiting exposes just about all the emotions you can have. It's like theatre in the round, except the audience are the actors."

Mr. Kirkby says the $25,000 the event raises every spring goes to help run the Nile Creek Enhancement Society, which raises funds from other sources to pay for the hatchery and work in the rearing channels and in the estuary.

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"In order to run the organization we need that money," Mr. Kirkby said of the art funds. "And it allows us to go to others, to corporations, and say we raised this much locally, can you match it?"

Mr. Kirkby said the society's success in Nile Creek has been recognized by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is allowing the group to work on five other small streams.

"We have a model that works," he said. "We've found a balance between what nature does and what we do."

Last year, Nile Creek was so full of salmon you couldn't see the bottom of the stream. This year is an off year for pink salmon, which typically alternate between big and small runs, but Mr. Kirkby says he is still expecting 100,000 spawners.

Now that is a work of art.

Follow me on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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