Two triangles, one containing lots of sediment, the other so clear as to be almost invisible

At the Gallery: Water/Colour from the Bute Inlet landslide

More than 12 years of research lie behind local artist and historian Judith William’s exhibition, which opened in the Old Schoolhouse Art Gallery on Friday, August 26. In an interview with Cortes Currents, three months prior to the Bute Inlet landslide, Williams spoke against the installation of power lines in that area because it is too avalanche prone. The Bute Inlet slide is featured in ‘Water/Colour,’ but the exhibition really  focuses on a series of paintings she made using the water she has been collecting in that region since 2010.

Some of the visitors at a table just outside the gallery – Photo by Richard Trueman @

“I spent a lot of time in Bute Inlet. When I heard that they wanted to put 17 run-of-the river projects in there, plus seven people were applying to take water off the waterfalls like Raindrop Creek, I felt that their applications were too big. It was too much for that inlet because it’s so volatile and landslides at just a flicker of the eyelash,” explained Willliams. 

“I started in 2010, collecting the water from as many places as I could. And also I was helped by a group of people who were concerned.”

She added, “It’s difficult sometimes for an artist to know what to do that is relevant to the issue and still remains art. This exhibition is called Water/Colour because it is an attempt to make art out of my desire to collect the water from all  the waterways, creeks and rivers and the Inlet that were under stress, also the waterfall, and paint with the water itself.”

The water sample case at the gallery – Photo by Richard Trueman @

The first thing someone sees, entering the gallery, is a cabinet containing a dozen jars of water. There was not room to display all 22 water samples in WIlliams’ collection. Eleven of these were collected from waterways in the Bute Inlet area. The last jar is ‘Bute Wax’ from the Schnarr family, whose lives WIlliams chronicled in  Cougar Companions: Bute Inlet Country and the Legendary Schnarrs .  

“It is particularly important to look at the Southgate sample from March  2021 and the Elliot Creek from 2010, because I have a section in here on the landslide and the water that was collected for me up there,” said Williams.

In the early morning hours of November 28, 2020, a chunk of the mountain plunged into an alpine lake, sending a 100-metre-high tsunami down Elliot Creek and into the Southgate. 

Judith Williams’ Elliot Creek Water painting ,using water sample taken 6 months after the landslide – Photo courtesy Judith Williams

One of the scientists at Hakai was particularly interested in Williams 2010 sample from Elliot Creek.

He told her, “I want to see this water.”

After seeing it, he said, “It is clear, and that’s pretty remarkable!”

Williams first water sample, taken from the creek at Smelt Bay, is not part of the exhibition. There was so much tone in the water that she thought, ‘well, this is gonna be easy.’ This was misleading, none of the samples from Bute Inlet possess that much tone! She decided ‘there were things up the hill that were draining into that beautiful little Creek.’ However Smelt Bay is on Cortes Island, and this exhibit focuses on Bute Inlet.

Exhibition poster – Courtesy Judith Williams

She chose a 2020 photo of someone swimming at Raindrop Creek Falls for her exhibition’s poster. 

“I use that on  the poster and the invitation because it does show quite remarkably the clear water, which is the waterfall. Then suddenly it’s green as soon as it’s into the inlet, because there’s so much silt in the inlet.”  

Williams gave Cortes Currents a quick tour of her exhibit. 

Twenty coats of water were applied to each ‘water/colour.’ One of the difficulties Williams faced is that, unlike watercolours, there is no binder in water. The shapes vary according to what she thought made sense with each particular sample. 

Elliot Creeks muddy waters fanning out as they enter the Southgate – taken from Judith Williams, Tongue of the Glacier

One of the stars of this show, in terms of subject matter, is the two triangles shown at the top of this page. They mimic the way that Elliot Creek fans out when it enters the Southgate River. Isabelle Demarais, from the Hakai Institute, gave Williams two samples taken from the Southgate, after the landslide. The dark triangle on the left was taken downstream from the junction with the Elliot. The almost transparent image on the right is from the clear water upstream.

There is quite a lot of residue in the curved sample from Church House Creek. Williams explained that the creek runs through the village and graveyard. She chose a curved shape in remembrance of the church’s beautiful lunette windows.

Judith Williams’ Church House Creek painting – Photo by Richard Trueman @

The crescent form in one of the other pictures was inspired by a Homalco First Nation of a double-headed serpent. Chief Darren Blaney told WIlliams quite a few stories. Unfortunately the water was quite clear and does not photograph well.

One of the simplest shapes is a rectangle, made from salty water collected closer to the mouth of Bute Inelt. Gieselle, who cooks at one of the camps , collected it 200 metres from the dock. The salt has corrupted the paper, adding texture and crystallizing the surface.

Williams explained that the further you go up Bute Inlet, the more likely it is that the water will be fresh.

“More than two thirds of the Inlet has fresh water on the surface.”

Judith Williams’ Bute Inlet painting – Photo by Richard Trueman @

In addition to her paintings, Williams has put a collection of photos from the landslide on display. 

One of them was taken by helicopter pilot Bastian Fleury, who followed the trail of debris from Bute Inlet to its source on December 10, 2020. 

Williams quoted him in Tongue of the glacier: Elliot Creek landslide, Bute Inlet, 2020:

“It was coming from a landslide down Elliot Creek, a huge one, massive!” he said. “I’ve seen landslides, but that’s the biggest I’ve seen and the biggest that’s happened around here in the last few years for sure. We followed the landslide up; it’s about 10-12 km long. At the top there’s a glacier, and the glacier is different too. It lost lots of ice that ended up in the lake, which created a wave that flooded the valley. I know the spot, I’ve flown there before and it’s totally changed. The creek is really wide now and flooded the whole Southgate River.”

One of the final components of William’s exhibit is a cabinet containing folders of supporting documentation for the various topics touched upon in the show. 

Judith Williams will be giving an artist talk at the Old Schoolhouse Gallery at 7 PM on Friday September 2. 

Part of this exhibit was show at the Tidal Art Centre, in Lund, from July 1 to 14. 

Another showing of this exhibition is planned for The Old School House Arts Centre in Qualicum during the Summer of 2024 

Top image credit: ‘Downstream’ (l) and ‘Upstream’ samples from the Southgate River after the landslide. The fan shape was inspired by the shape of Elliot Creek where it enters the Southgate – Painting and Photo by Judith Williams

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