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Operation Chalk the Nation comes to Whitehorse

Dave Johnston brings his artwork to the Yukon
Visiting Jade City on his way to the Yukon, artist Dave Johnston created this painting on a piece of jade. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)

For years, a big part of artist Dave Johnston’s career has been creating his work in front of, and for, large festival crowds.

While large festival events are on hiatus as the world continues to contend with COVID-19, that’s not stopping the Nova Scotia artist — better known as Chalkmaster Dave — from presenting his work as he travels across the country.

“It’s helping me connect with people,” he said in a Sept. 14 interview during a brief stay in Whitehorse before he headed to Dawson.

Johnston was travelling to Dawson with a goal of painting the scenes that make the Klondike so unique. Even before arriving in Dawson, Johnston was churning over ideas for a painting of the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, perhaps something he may produce during a live demonstration.

Live demos, along with large chalk pieces spanning city sidewalks, 3D installations and more at events like the Halifax Busker Festival, Singapore Street Festival and others have all been part of Johnston’s more than 25-year career.

That is until COVID-19 put festivals and big events on hiatus, leaving Johnston — who is accustomed to working in a crowd — largely alone at his country house in Nova Scotia with only a few neighbours nearby.

Artist Dave Johnston is in the territory as part of his Operation Chalk the Nation tour. (Submitted/Dave Johnston)

It’s a big change when you’re used to being around a lot of people, Johnston said, noting that while he has held some online events and continues selling his work online, it’s not the same as working the festival circuit.

When an opportunity to sell his house came up, he decided to take it and buy an RV.

Initially, he envisioned a road trip to visit his children in Montreal and Squamish, British Columbia. With a couple of jobs that came up to produce chalk murals — including one in Vancouver, he soon realized it was an opportunity for adventure and to share his art with new audiences across the country.

He’s dubbed the journey Operation Chalk the Nation and through it, Johnston is using his art to reach out to people and show that most aren’t as far apart on issues as the internet would have you believe.

“We lose our nuance in a sound bite,” Johnston said. “We love the zinger.”

While social media can make issues seem quite polarizing, particularly in the midst of a pandemic no one has experienced before, Johnston pointed out for the most part everyone is looking for the same things. Health, happiness, caring for their families all top the list.

He added it’s important for people — while being as safe as possible — to get back to a place of being familiar with one another again with greater communication.

“Art has allowed me to do that,” he said, noting it acts as a bridge to bigger conversations.

Travelling the country while producing art brings about discussions, allowing Johnston to meet a wide variety of people from all walks of life.

“It’s been a really wonderful experience,” he said as he highlighted experiences like meeting the Bunce family in Jade City, about 115 kilometres north of Dease Lake, B.C.

Not much of a TV-watcher, Johnston didn’t realize there was a TV show about the family’s jade mining operation, and similarly, it was only through conversation that they learned of Johnston’s work.

From there, conversations grew and Johnston found himself with the opportunity to create works of art on the jade mined in the area.

Johnston said his journey is both allowing him to connect to people more and has also helped him renew his calling as an artist, making it less of a job these days.

After spending some time in Dawson, Johnston plans to make his way back to Whitehorse before heading back down south and continuing to take his art across the country back to Nova Scotia.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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