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From Canvas to Coordinates: Mapping Saskatoon’s Public Artwork

ArcGIS StoryMaps helps communities tell and showcase their stories. The City of Saskatoon uses ArcGIS StoryMaps to showcase their public artwork located throughout the city.

Geographic Information Science (GIS) and cartography are often touted as both an art and as a science. There is undoubtedly a certain interplay between mapping and art: there is a need for GIS technicians to be able to convey and present spatial data clearly and with visual appeal; the symbology of a map is a question of artistic choice; and the word 'cartography' has the word 'art' in it. Perhaps even in the same way that a painting begins as a blank canvas, then as an underpainting, then as a sketch, followed by layer upon layer of paint to form a final painting, so, too, is a map built up in the same way - a blank project, a geodatabase, a basemap and then layer upon layer of data and symbology design to present a final map.

With cartography influencers like John Nelson who teach about creating unique maps with cool symbology and webinars delivered on artistic basemapping inspired by the artwork of Paul Cézanne, there is even further crossover between the GIS world and the art world. As a GIS professional and an amateur artist myself (see mister mouse, the accordionist, below), I am especially attuned to such overlaps and intersections.

Left: A screenshot from John Nelson’s tutorial on creating watercolour maps. The featured map is centered atop Manhattan and features beige, blue and green watercolour colours. Middle: A basemap styled with and to resemble the artwork of Paul Cézanne – this map extent is located at a continent-level scale of Europe, showing a painted blue ocean, beige and light green land mass and pears and fruit icons for capital cities. Right: A photo of a watercolour painting of a anthropomorphic mouse sitting on a stool, wearing a beret and playing an accordion.

On the left, a screenshot from John Nelson’s incredible tutorial on creating watercolour maps and on the right, a basemap styled using the literal brushstrokes of French artist Paul Cézanne’s landscape and still life paintings. Find the process for creative basemap design outlined in this story. And one of my own watercolour paintings, of a little mouse playing accordion.

But there is another intersection of art and mapping, within the software side of map design: using GIS and mapping to show where public artworks are located. GIS and mapping meet artwork with the Public Artwork StoryMap created by the City of Saskatoon.

For art aficionados and regular civilians alike, this Public Artwork story helps Saskatonians know where to find pieces of artwork and to learn more about the artist and their statement on the piece. The story includes 85 pieces of art (and counting!) that are located throughout the City of Saskatoon, features a high-resolution professional photo of each work accompanied by a statement written by each artist, and makes up a map tour showing the location of each piece of public artwork. The interactive map component of the story allows art lovers to navigate around Saskatoon, panning the map and clicking on each point or scrolling through the sidecar to read the artists' statement about each piece. The point locations of public artworks are placed atop the Community Map of Canada basemap.

As Community Map of Canada data contributors, the open data from the City of Saskatoon is synced regularly into the basemap, ensuring that the City of Saskatoon is represented accurately and 'in real time.' Their active participation in the Community Map program since 2010 and use of the Community Map of Canada Topographic basemap in the map tour is what led to this contributor spotlight on the wonderful story created by the City of Saskatoon.

A screenshot of the City of Saskatoon’s Public Art StoryMap, showing the tabs to jump to the public artworks in each neighbourhood and the start of the map tour to navigate through all featured public art. The featured mural on a large apartment building is of a couple looking down on their baby.

A screenshot of the City of Saskatoon’s Public Art StoryMap, showing the tabs to jump to the public artworks in each neighbourhood and the start of the map tour to navigate through all featured public art.

The City of Saskatoon has a rich and vibrant art community, history and presence. Whether it’s the "long winters that help people to go inwards and stimulate creativity” or anything else, from their dedication to arts & culture, it is clear that there is no shortage of creators, artistry and beautiful works within the City of Saskatoon. Indeed, in writing this article, I was lucky to even meet with two of the developers of the story who work for the City of Saskatoon, Nancy Bellegarde and Alejandro Romero. They also happen to be multimedia artists and I asked to show their works below.

Left: A photo of two hand-crafted blockish cats blacksmithed from metal, sitting on a table. The cats are tall and rectangular, with paws, ears, eyes, and whiskers. Right: A photo of an acrylic painting of a tree, green grass below, a blue and purple lined background, and the trunk and boughs of the trees painted with vibrant colours – orange, lime green, and dark black outlines.

Kitty & Pinky” by Nancy Bellegarde (L) and “Tree Destiny” by Alejandro Romero (R). Nancy’s piece was created during a week-long blacksmithing class in honour of her two small rescue cats, waiting for her at home. Long since passed, these pieces are odes to the beautiful beings they were. Alejandro’s work was made with acrylics on Strathmore paper. 

There is a very strong Saskatonian presence among the CARFAC (Canadian Artists' Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens), which acts as the national voice of and for Canada’s professional visual artists. Nancy herself is a member of both the city’s Craft Council and the female blacksmithing group Sisters of Fire. Whether it is as visible as a large public mural featured in a story or a best-kept secret (as Alejandro quipped – and I’ll add that most good art scenes are often hidden!), it is clear that public art is very important to Saskatoon.  

Indeed, this is not the first time that Nancy and Alejandro’s team have created a public artwork StoryMaps-based repository for artistic Saskatonians. Data about the public art collection was initially shared as part of a printed catalog (around 2009-2011), but it never quite addressed the need for dynamic availability of information – information about each piece and where art lovers could find the public art. After a few iterations of this story (some of which suffered data corruption, others which had colour-coded map tours instead of neighbourhood-based map tours), this final version was ultimately launched to the public in October 2023.

This Public Artwork StoryMap features more than 85 pieces of their comprehensive public art collection across 100 years of art (dating back to 1921). The featured artworks are either privately owned or on loan and fill a comprehensive collection that also features Indigenous artwork. According to the curators of the story, Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation are a core part of the art collection and its purpose.

More than 10% of Saskatoon's public art collection is Indigenous art or art created in collaboration with Indigenous artists, totalling 17 pieces pertaining to Truth and Reconciliation, which is a high proportion for Canadian municipal art collections of this size. Featured Indigenous artists include Dr. Ruth Cuthand, Joseph Naytowhow, Ken Williams, Lloyd Pinay, and more. Now, thanks to the story, users can find the pieces by each artist, including the five bus stops designed in collaboration with Indigenous elders, artists, and transit professionals. This was done in collaboration with Saskatoon Transit to support Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #79, which speaks to developing reconciliation plans to commemorate Indigenous heritage. Because the story includes descriptions of the piece and the artist's statement, as well as its geographic location, the important themes and messages of the artwork can be shared – such as Joseph Naytowhow's four works about and for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).

A compilation of five pieces of physical public art works – a statue resembling an organic natural formation – almost like sand dollars--, a bus stop made in an Indigenous style of art, a colourful mural with a sunset, animals and cityscape, a metal statue of a cougar and a metal grate for a young urban tree made with Indigenous art and style.

Clockwise from the top left : Dream Walker by Leslie Potter; Nutana (Bus Shelter) by Elder Harry Lafond and Students from Nutana Collegiate; Inner City by Josh Jacobson; Saskatoon Cougar by Kevin Quinlan; and River Landing Tree Grates by Elders Stan Cuthand, Malvina Eagle, Simon Kytwayhat, Katie Poundmaker, and Eliza Swimmer.

In most situations, art is often relegated to just a few isolated locations -- museums. But by harnessing the power of GIS, spatial community data, and storytelling, public art works (and their messages) can be brought to each neighbourhood and shared with the community that lives closest to each location (and indeed to visitors). This is a great, interactive, way to share art and the messages behind it, and what a great way to use GIS to speak to that intersection of art and science; public art and mapping; the “art” in cartography.

You can find the City of Saskatoon’s Public Artwork StoryMap here.

About the Author

Emma Melis is a bilingual Technical Solutions Specialist (TSS) supporting the Community Map of Canada team. She enthusiastically champions Canadian and French-Canadian community representation in the Community Map of Canada basemap program. Emma is a lifelong environmentalist and pursued a Bachelor of Arts & Science in Sustainability, Science & Society at McGill University where she applied GIS to projects on environmental sustainability, gender and mobility. Curious and fascinated with discovery and research, her passions lie in spatial thinking, interdisciplinary sustainability, community-building and science communication. Outside of work, Emma is an artist, map enthusiast and storyteller.

Profile Photo of Emma Melis