Before the flood, Baie-Saint-Paul, Que., was best known for art. Now local artists are picking up the pieces

Nestled in the picturesque Charlevoix region of Quebec, Baie-Saint-Paul has long been a mecca for artists – and tourists. But now, parts of the town are covered in mud and many artists trying to salvage what they can from their flood-damaged studios.

Devastating damage happened just weeks before tourist season set to start

A man looks at the camera with painting behind him

Equipped with a headlamp, Humberto Pinochet shuffled through the mud in what used to be his quiet — and dry— art studio nestled next to the Rivière du Gouffre in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que.

A Chilean-born artist who has called the Charlevoix region home for 27 years, Pinochet pointed to a photo of him painting when he was a boy, his mother looking over his shoulder.

"My mother was an artist and at the age of nine years I won my first contest," said Pinochet. He says his Quebec property has been part of his inspiration, located near the downtown core of an area known for its local art scene.

"I am the kind of person [who] finds my inspiration in the happiness of life and I try to translate the colourful moment," said Pinochet. "I think the most important thing in life is to try to create."

But the fruit of 40 years of work was threatened this week when heavy rainfall and flooding slammed the town and inundated his property — and many others — with muddy water that has only now begun to recede.

Pinochet is among several local artists whose property was uninsured and was damaged by the storm — and whose business will be set back by the destruction.

"All my papers, watercolours, photography, documents are destroyed," said Pinochet, looking at his friends walking through what used to be his front yard carrying the paintings that could be recovered.

"We don't have insurance, so I probably will have to leave the place," he said. "I am so afraid of what happened with the river and how the destruction could be done in so little space of time."

'We're gonna pass through this'

His close friend, neighbour and former partner, Cathy Martin,was there helping him clean up. On Tuesday, the day after the flooding, she returned to the property to check in after Pinochet was stuck in another part of town due to a bridge closure.

"It was just awful," said Martin. "You can't imagine that the power of nature can do such a thing and you're thinking about all the memories and all the work of Humberto just destroyed in a few hours."

"There's many things that we won't be able to save," she said. "All his cameras are broken. It's just too bad, too sad. He's been collecting them for many years and they're all gone."

Although it's been a difficult past few days, Martin says their thoughts are with the family of the firefighters Régis Lavoie and Christopher Lavoie who went missing on Monday. On Wednesday, the bodies of two firefighters were found.

"We were thinking of the two firemen … We stick together and we are going to help each other, we're going to help the other friends," said Martin. "We're gonna pass through this."

Baie-Saint-Paul: a 'mecca for art'

Evarist Prokofiev, an artist and gallery owner in Baie-Saint-Paul, says he moved to the region from Ontario 13 years ago because of the art scene.

"Baie-Saint-Paul is such a mecca for art and has been for almost 100 years," said Prokofiev. "So with something like this happening here in Baie-Saint-Paul, it's sad and it's kind of nerve-wracking because their season is about to start."

Prokofiev says his gallery was fortunately not severely damaged, but the lower level of the building that slopes down and next to the river was filled with mud — an area that was just constructed and freshly painted weeks ago.

Looking out the second-storey balcony at the mud left behind in what used to be the gallery's parking lot, Prokofiev says he stopped in when he heard about the weather alert.

"I came here just in case and then I thought the water was very, very high and then they started seeing refrigerators going by trees, telephone poles, pieces of houses. And that's when they realized this might end up being something really bad," said Prokofiev.

"You see the rate of speed that the river's moving, we're used to that in the springtime because of the thaw, except this year we had that extreme heat a few weeks ago and it accelerated the melt."

$10K to $15K for cleanup

Carrying art from 15 Canadian artists in the gallery, once the news got out about the flooding, Prokofiev said he started fielding calls from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Although no art was damaged, he suspects the flood will cost him thousands of dollars.

"We could not get insurance for water damage of any kind," said Prokofiev, adding that his property is along a floodplain.

"The backyard alone with heavy equipment to get rid of the mud and the gravel. I can just just say right off the bat, I can imagine $10,000 to $15,000 for the cleanup just instantly."

He hopes he can repair the damage to the basement and parking lot by the start of the tourist season in the late spring.

"I think the priority is to get the town back in shape from that perspective, because you know that's kind of the lifeblood of the community," said Prokofiev.

Although he has no plans to move his gallery, Prokofiev says he worries flooding could become more common.

"This was the 100-year storm that happened on Monday. Is there going to be a 10-year storm? A five-year storm? I don't know," said Prokofiev.

"I am very concerned for the future."

Starting over

Pinochet also says the community needs to move forward.

"I try to think of another way to go for the future, and I think more about the people that need [help] more than me," said Pinochet.

"The most important [thing] is to stay alive and continue to have a positive look for the future … life is like that. It's like a river. We have to follow what happened."

Although the destruction has made him question his future in the area — with his house possibly needing to be bulldozed, forcing him to miss festivals and exhibitions — as an immigrant, Pinochet says he is used to starting over.

"I lived in wartime when I was young [in Chile], so I lost everything a couple of times in life. So it's not the first time that something harms [me] like that," said Pinochet.

WATCH | Gallery owner Evarist Prokofiev shows the damage:

Quebec floods: 'It became very tragic, very fast'

17 hours ago

Duration 2:09

Everist Prokofiev shows some of the damage done by the 'shocking' fast-rising waters in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que.


Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec.

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