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COVID-19 paintings, snow sculptures and interactive public art: A year in an artist's life

What does an artist do during a pandemic? Make more art.

For a process-driven artist like Edmonton's Ritchie Velthuis, it's about looking toward the next thing, not reminiscing about past achievements. Though you certainly couldn't blame the 58-year-old prolific creator of contemporary cultural sculptures if he took an occasional moment to reflect on the successes of a 25-year career.

Highlights have to include Edmonton's Homeless Memorial (created collaboratively in 2011 with Keith and Mike Turnbull and several community artists) and the sculpted, painted figures of Neighbourhood Icons, a show at the Alberta Craft Council that serendipitously led to Velthuis' biggest claim to fame--creation of the SCTV monument--now perched near Rogers Place.

"I had no idea I'd be such a part of Edmonton's history and civic pride, but Bob and Doug Mackenzie were iconic Canadian characters," said Velthuis of the life-size bronze monument--iconic toque-wearing hosers sitting on a bench, stubby-bottle beers in hand. "I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to memorialize these characters that were developed and filmed here in Edmonton in the early '80s. Bob and Doug spoke to Canadian culture in such a relatable way."

Though the monument will have an official unveiling when it's safe to do so (even Bob and Doug actor/creators Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas show interest in attending), Velthuis hasn't yet left all the memorable characters from the popular sketch comedy series behind. At Harcourt House Artist Run Centre, Velthuis' journey with the SCTV monument has been on exhibit (for virtual visits) and will be again, likely when the monument is officially dedicated. Fans of the show and Velthius' whimsical interpretations will see 12-to-15-inch clay sculptures of Edith Prickley, Johnny LaRue, Bobby Bitmann, Lola Heatherton and Guy Caballero--sample models Velthuis created when making his proposal to the SCTV monument committee.

Harcourt House curator Darren Kooyman said “Ritchie Velthuis: SCTV Monument – Journey of an Artist” traces and explains the 'behind the scenes' of the project through seven segments: Genesis, Creating the Original, At the Foundry, The Patina, Revisions, Installation, and Public Reactions. The exhibit features letters, photos and sketches, plus the project maquettes (small, preliminary sculptures).

"It was Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson (best-known for her sculptures of the "Famous Five") who put my name forward for the SCTV monument after seeing the Neighbourhood Icons. She told the committee, "I know the perfect artist". That project has been the honour of a lifetime," Velthuis said.

During the pandemic, Velthuis has been moving from one project (and medium) to the next. That includes his annual return to minus 20 February temperatures at Hawrelak Park's Silver Skate Festival, where he's created snow sculptures for over a decade.

"We brought competitive snow sculpting to Edmonton," said Velthuis, who's part of the Sculptors' Association of Alberta ( "I'm attracted to snow because there's an opaqueness that makes you pay attention to form. it's accessible; people can do it at home with garden tools." Velthuis has garnered numerous awards for his ice and snow sculptures, including national honours at the International Snow Sculpture Event at Carnival in Quebec City. 

"Natural snowflakes are crystals--always different--but manufactured snow is a consistent pulp that packs stronger and gives you better carving control," he said.

And as a response to COVID-19, Velthuis spent lock down time creating a series of 16 small landscape paintings he's dubbed 'From Darkness Comes Light'.

As for what comes next, Velthuis says we won't have to wait long to see it. "I'm going to start another public art piece; a bronze sculpture--but not of anyone famous," he laughs.