After a decade of art and community ­building, BC Hydro asks Fernwood NRG to stop pole painting

›› Beth Threlfall

How to start a neighbourhood art project? Everything begins with a spark: mine was attending a community-building lecture hosted by Fernwood NRG back in 2008. Walking home afterwards, I knew I could do something for our neighbourhood, that I could make a change simply by using art and my imagination. Deciding to keep it simple, I chose to paint sunflowers over the unsightly graffiti tags on the hydro pole out front of our home. That one pole was so well-received by friends, neighbours, and passers-by that it led to another, and then another. Art was beginning to transform Fernwood Road.

In 2011, Fernwood NRG noticed. In collaboration with Mila Czemerys of ­Fernwood NRG and Emily Grav of the Paint Box School of Art, we expanded the project to everyone in the neighbourhood. Since then, hundreds of people have participated each year in the Fernwood Pole Painting Project, beautifying Fernwood and ­creating remarkable art in the process. Now, however, that’s all about to change.

If you haven’t yet heard, BC Hydro has decided to no longer permit painting on hydro poles. Their official statement to me on September 6th was, “BC Hydro reviewed decorative pole painting from many ­perspectives and concluded that, for a variety of operational and safety reasons, we can no longer allow decorative painting of poles.” It seems there were problems in other Island communities that tried to duplicate Fernwood’s success, so despite 11 years of approval and steady communication with us, they have now decided that if everyone in the province can’t paint poles, then no one can. Yet other communities weren’t necessarily painting their poles for the same reason this started in Fernwood—as a way of addressing urban neglect.

Since the news broke, I have done a number of media interviews and the ­community reaction has been overwhelmingly in support of Fernwood’s project; there have been hundreds of comments on Facebook and in social media expressing surprise, outrage, and frustration at this new decision. And while BC Hydro has said they won’t paint over any existing poles, they have also said they will paint over any poles they receive complaints about—and that we are not allowed to freshen up any of the currently painted poles.

True, not everyone loves the poles, but we have always worked with our community to ensure everyone’s concerns are met. But one of the reasons I started the project was to offer a solution to urban neglect; BC Hydro was clear at the time that they had neither the budget nor the manpower to do anything about the proliferation of tagging on the poles in our neighbourhood—an issue that we are still dealing with. Only time will tell if BC Hydro will properly maintain the brand-new poles going up around Fernwood, many of which have already been tagged.

So what now?

I’m hoping things will work out. ­Personally, I will continue to make art, find new projects and be part of this fantastic community of people. Looking back over the past decade, I’ve had a remarkable time talking with people, making connections, and watching the Fernwood Pole ­Painting Project inspire other communities in Ottawa, Calgary, New York, Missouri, and South Carolina, as well as others.

What I would love to see now is for people to share their stories with us about their own experiences of painting a pole in the neighbourhood. Rather than get angry, let’s use this as an opportunity to bring something new to the neighbourhood. Please send your stories and ideas for other artistic project ideas our way at ­mila@­

Finally, I’d like to express my ­gratitude to everyone—whether you like the ­Fernwood Pole Project or not. We all did this together and we’ll continue ­working together in the future. Let’s always be inspired by the words of author Neil Gaiman, “Be bold. Be rebellious. Choose art. It matters.”