Arts and culture in Wells, B.C.: Small Cariboo town with big city talent


FestivalSeekers and Miss604 want to challenge you this summer to #ExploreCariboo. The Cariboo region is home to an array of funky, creative communities like Wells, Quesnel, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake and Horsefly. Explore more, see the links below and #ExploreBC.

Rebecca Bollwitt (aka Miss604)

Before arriving in the 1930s Gold Rush town of Wells, B.C., people told me to expect a mini- Newfoundland, because of the brightly painted buildings. But after meeting so many inspiring women with a deep community spirit, many originally from East Vancouver, it reminded me more of the artsy Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona.

However, once you’ve been to Wells yourself, you’ll quickly see it stands on its own as an arts and culture hub in a gorgeous Cariboo setting.

#ExploreCariboo this summer. Plan your trip to Wells...

Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt

Wells is unique in many ways, like the playful and charming facades downtown.

Standing in the middle of what was once Holy Rosary Catholic Church with artist Claire Kujundzic, we were surrounded by unique and vibrant art reflecting the multicoloured layout of the municipality, population 250.

“There were only three paint colour options at the time, so we painted the church window trims bright blue.”

Claire owns Amazing Space, the church-turned-gallery and living space, with her husband Bill Horne. The pair from East Vancouver purchased the deconsecrated building in 1994 after they moved to Wells. Sitting at 1,200 metres, surrounded by greenery and mountains, this site is an inspiration to many artists.

Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt

Wells artist Claire Kujundzic shows her painting of the Sunset Theatre, which is now used in the town's promotions.

“Those are my friend’s chairs in front of her house, and that’s a friend’s canoe.” Claire’s commissions for magazine covers and illustrations means that Wells has found a bit of fame. Her vibrant use of colour in her artwork, graphic designs, posters, and logo work tell the story of Wells - like her iconic painting of the Sunset Theatre used in many of the town’s promotions.

She also has world-renowned canvas pieces that emulate the red pine beetle-ravaged trees of the Cariboo. “Wells inspires me by being beautiful and remote.”

My next stop was the Sunset Theatre, down the road from Amazing Space. But first I came across the final day of the Wells Classic Show & Shine, where 20 vehicles were on display, their paint jobs blending harmoniously with the brightly painted buildings of Pooley Street.

Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt

The colourful Show & Shine with the backdrop of the brightly painted buildings in Wells

Having driven from Quesnel, about an hour away, members of the Prospectors Car Club of Quesnel and others, had their hot rods, originals, and restorations on display. Today was awards day, and the night before the community hosted a drive-in movie night at the ballpark.

Arriving at the theatre, Julia Mackey, playwright and performer, told me about its history. “There’s a lot of love in this theatre,” she said, as I took photos of almost 100 seats that have been restored with local donations.

Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt

Playwright and performer Julia Mackey outside the Sunset Theatre.

The Sunset Theatre was built in 1934. In 1999, after many iterations, including being B.C.’s first gambling hall and a one-time morgue after a local mine disaster, it fell into disrepair. Karen Planden and David Jeffrey, of Lions Bay, purchased the building and restored it, creating a performing arts hub.

Since 2005, it has staged professional theatrical productions and movie nights, along with concerts complemented by its perfect acoustics. Julia’s award-winning play, Jake’s Gift, started on stage at the Sunset and has since toured around the globe.

Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt

The Frog in the Bog has souvenirs, gifts, clothing, hats, ice cream and a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Chatting with artists and shop owners, I also heard a lot about “IMA.” The backbone of the arts community is Island Mountain Arts Society, which curates workshops, exhibitions, and seminars at the popular annual ArtsWells Festival, serving Northern B.C. for the last 40 years.

You’ll find a few IMA buildings and galleries in town where you can visit and shop, and their website has all the latest ArtsWells info. Besides ArtsWells (Aug. 3-6, 2018), there are songwriting workshops, contemporary dances, concerts, artist talks, print workshops and more all summer.

My day in Wells ended with cake. I happened to arrive on the 20th anniversary of the municipality and a deliciously oversized sheet cake, featuring Wells’ signature colourful building, was cut and served. What a sweet way to end the day.

Happy birthday, Wells. A colourful cake reflects the buildings and the town’s logo.

My backpack full of souvenirs (a T-shirt from The Bear’s Paw Cafe, a signed print from Claire, and pins from the Sunset), I wandered past a “Lot for Sale” sign that listed a five-figure number that made my heart beat a little faster. I won’t be packing up permanently and relocating along the Gold Rush route, but I will be planning my next visit very soon. 

Where to Stay

Wells is a home base for exploring the Cariboo Gold Rush Town of Barkerville, western North America’s largest historic site, Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, and a lineup of festivals, stage productions, and community events. The Wells Hotel on Pooley Street is at the centre of it all. Walking distance to galleries and the theatre, there’s a pub and restaurant option all in one.

Where to Shop

Frog on the Bog has unique gifts, from comfy plaid or wool sweaters to jewelry and stylish hats, along with an ice cream parlour and sturdy Wi-Fi. Jack O Clubs next door is your one-stop shop. It’s a general store, post office, and pub with a live entertainment stage.

Where to Eat

The coffee in Wells is amazing. Whether you sit and enjoy a cup at the Bear’s Paw Cafe on the main highway after browsing the Frog in the Bog gift shop, or if Claire whips you up a cappuccino at Amazing Space, you won’t be disappointed - or left with any caffeine cravings.

For supper, head to the Pooley St. Cafe located in the Wells Hotel. When I told my hosts and new friends I was dining there during my stay, the general reply was: “Oooh, you’ll love it!” It’s offers big city cuisine meets Wells-inspired dishes: Apricot, apple and cherry wood-smoked chicken lollipops; roast rack of lamb with a rich rosemary demi-glace, served with a fresh, local picked morel mushroom and caramelized onion sauté on a bed of spinach. I loved it.

If You Go

Start planning your adventures in Wells, B.C. at its tourism website.

Wells is along the Gold Rush Trail, which links several of these funky communities together. Chris Wheeler made the trek, producing this video to give you a better idea to what’s in store:

Watch Arts & Culture Road Trip: British Columbia's Cariboo Region on YouTube.

Learn more about ArtsWells on August 3 - 6 here.

Start exploring the Cariboo and Gold Rush Trail with Destination BC.

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