Tar Sands Storytelling Project

artwork of forest with sun and river
Tar Sands Oil in Wisconsin
Artwork by Marjorie Steele Halverson

The Tar Sands Storytelling Project is a collaborative, grass-roots, and first of its kind visual arts exhibit. Over the course of six months, 10 Wisconsin artists researched, rendered, and reflected upon the cradle to grave story of tar sands oil in Wisconsin. The 10 panel exhibit of their work depicts different aspects of tar sands oil and pipeline infrastructure in the context of the global climate crisis. Wisconsin is home to the world’s largest tar sands pipeline outside of Russia. Line 61 is owned by the Canadian oil company Enbridge, and pumps 1.2 million barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta Canada through Wisconsin and down to the Gulf of Mexico each day. Within Wisconsin, the line runs from Superior, WI to a refinery in Flanagan, IL. The threat that tar sands pose to the environment, Indigenous rights, property rights, and our health and safety are vast.


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Cutting Stage 1: Down the Boreal Forest

Artist: Marjorie Steele Halverson

In order to get to the tar sands oil in the ground,
oil companies have to completely remove and clear cut the Boreal Forest. The Boreal Forest is the largest carbon sink in the world and is home to many different mammals, birds, and insects, including woodland caribou, grizzly bears, and wolverines.

Stage 2: Mining the Tar Sands Oil

Artist: Anne Jensen

The mining of the tar sands oil is a carbon-intensive process that leaves tailing ponds holding toxic sludge and liquid waste. The poisons can leach into groundwater and the Athabasca River. The First Nations peoples that live nearby have been suffering from cancers and health issues that are correlated to tar sands oil.

Stage 3: Adding Chemicals

Artist: Rory Donovan

For Tar Sands Oil to flow through pipelines it must be thinned with chemicals called diluents. The diluents contain known carcinogens such as benzine. When tar sands spill in a body of water, the tar sands sink to the bottom, and the diluents float to the top and evaporate over time. Exposure to benzene is a cause of bone marrow failure, and is linked to a variety of other bone marrow and blood cell diseases.

Stage 4: Impeding Treaty Rights

Artist: Paul Hinsa

Most parts of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota is land on which Native American tribes have treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather. Pipeline construction and potential Tar Sands oil spills endanger these treaty rights.

“I’ve been asleep most of my life but am awake since Standing Rock.” – Paul Hinsa

Stage 5: Creating a Path

Artist: Donna Post

Landowners along the pipeline corridor must negotiate with the pipeline owner or have their land taken through eminent domain proceedings. For some landowners, this means the fields they use for farming are lost along with the income from working the land. For others, it could mean the loss of a home that has been in the family for generations.


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Stage 6: Constructing a Pipeline

Artist: Lorenzo Lee Backhaus

Pipeline construction can create major problems. In 2008, Enbridge was prosecuted for more than 100 environmental violations during the construction of the Line 61 pipeline. Enbridge workers illegally cleared or disrupted wooded wetlands and used practices that degraded land, streams, and other property. Enbridge received the largest fine in Wisconsin’s history.

Stage 7: A Potential Spill

Artist: Joan Walker

Oil spills impact the land, the watershed, and the people that live nearby. A bursting pipeline can spread oil over acres and acres of land, poison drinking wells, and pollute rivers for decades. The diluents mixed into the Tar Sands oil contain many toxic chemicals that can cause severe health problems. The economic damages to tourism and quality of life can cost communities millions and millions of dollars.

Stage 8: Oil is Refined and Shipped

Artist: Daniel Torres

At the end of the pipeline, the oil is refined. Because Tar Sands oil is so dirty, refining it is extremely dirty as well.
Oil is separated from the waste products leaving “Petcoke.” This “Petcoke” often sits in a pile near the refinery. On windy days, great black clouds of Petcoke dust have been seen blowing from piles in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay. Once inhaled, these extremely fine dust particles cause irreparable damage to the heart and lungs.

Stage 9: A Future of Climate Change

Artist: Christine Keller

Take off the blinders, and see what’s happening to our environment, our Mother Earth, as a result of the mining of Tar Sands. Climate scientists have stated: “Given how carbon-intensive the process is, Tar Sands extraction means ‘game-over’ for the climate.” In Wisconsin, this means extreme heat, more storms and flooding, and vanishing ice on northern lakes that affects cold water ecosystems. It is not too late to take action in our legislatures to promote responsible management of this critical ecosystem of our planet for future generations.

Stage 10: It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Artist: Helen Klebesadel

Instead of the negative consequences of Tar Sands extraction, we could invest in clean energy sources, like wind and solar energy. Whatever jobs or energy we’re hoping to gain from the Tar Sands and pipeline, we can get all of that and more with wind and solar. We must come together to share our concerns, and make our voices heard.

Artists and Organizers

Tar Sands Art Show (Artists from left to right: Daniel Torres, Helen Klebesadel, Rory Donovan, Joan Walker, Anne Jensen, Marjorie Steele Halverson, Christine Keller. Not Pictured: Lorenzo Lee Backhaus, Paul Hinsa, Donna Post).

Marjorie Steele Halverson, Black River Falls, WI (she/her/hers). Whether it be a planned painting or intuitive, starting with a spot of paint, Marjorie paints from deep within her being. She enjoys many mediums and often her work becomes tactile. Her work is influenced by her deep faith, family, and the diversity of customs and environment of the places she has lived and traveled.

Anne Jensen, Alma Center, WI (she/her/hers). Anne is a graduate of UW-Eau Claire in Anne is a graduate of UW-Eau Claire in 2008 as a non-traditional student and Fine Arts Major with an emphasis in sculpture. Her primary mediums of expression include ceramic figures, natural wooden forms, multi-medium materials, figure drawing/pencil, use of color and composition exploration.

Rory Donovan, Milwaukee, WI (they/them/theirs). Rory has enjoyed making art for as long as they can remember. They studied industrial design for two years at UW-Stout before changing majors to applied social sciences, and is currently back in school at UW-Milwaukee to practice Community Art. They believe art plays a vital role in storytelling and building community.

Paul Hinsa, Madison, WI (he/him/his). I’ve been asleep most of my life but am awake since Standing Rock. I am a Water Protector. I took poetic license and intentionally spelled Enbridge wrong-because they are in the wrong.

Donna Post, Cable, WI (she/her/hers). Donna Post is best known locally as a muralist, and is currently working on a 70-foot mural for the town of Cable, Wisconsin. Many of her murals and free-standing paintings can be found in Southern California and several locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Lorenzo Lee Backhaus, Milwaukee, WI (he/him/his). Lorenzo holds a Masters of Sustainable Peace-building from UW-Milwaukee. He first learned about the tar sands pipelines in Wisconsin when he was a student at UW-Whitewater.

Joan Walker, Humbird, WI (she/her/hers). Joan gives into the time and emotion it takes to be truthful to expressing her interpretations of history, landforms and archaeology. Joan has won three WRAP State Awards and has had exhibits in Starbucks on the Capital Square and the Opening Artist Exhibit for the Clark County Art Center.

Daniel Torres, Milwaukee, WI (he/him/his). Daniel is a multidisciplinary designer and artist best known for his watercolor paintings.  Contact him to see more of his work at dannymtorres@gmail.com

Christine Keller, Neillsville, WI (she/her/hers). Christine Keller (BA, Fine Arts–Indiana University) is a local artist in the Neillsville area. Christine enjoyed a thirty-six year career in commercial art. She now provides graphic design support and serves on the Board of Directors for the Clark Cultural ART Center in Neillsville, Wisconsin.

Helen Klebesadel, Madison, WI (she/her/hers). Helen Klebesadel (MFA UW-Madison) is best known for her environmental and women centered artworks. Helen is a past Director of the Wisconsin Regional Art program, part-president of the national Women’s Caucus for Art, and she served on the Wisconsin Arts Board for seven years.

Abby Ross, Madison, WI (she/her/hers). Abby is an organizer, activist, and creative. She holds a degree in Political Science from the University of WIsconsin – Madison where she first started organizing within the youth climate justice movement, specifically around pipeline resistance. In 2019 Abby was the recipient of the Sierra Club Joseph Barbosa Award for her activism and leadership on the Tar Sands Storytelling Project. She has since been invited to speak at events such as the National Women’s Caucus for Art National Conference. She currently sits on the Executive, and Equity Committee for the Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club and continues to lead collaborative, art and storytelling projects on climate justice issues.

Organized by the Clark Cultural Arts Center (CART), Wisconsin Youth Network (WiYN), and the Sierra Club, Wisconsin Chapter.

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1 thought on “Tar Sands Storytelling Project”

  1. This is incredibly powerful and informative. I did not understand the whole process or realize that this was the second largest tat sand project in e world. I hope this can continue to be shared on social media and used in schools.

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