Murals across Canada

Murals: Canadians love them. They provide a free, outdoor, nationwide art gallery and a pictorial history of towns and cities. They are also a major lure for visitors.

On a per-person-per-wall ratio, Canada probably has more murals than any other nation. Yet they first appeared just 20 years ago, when Karl Schutz, a resident of the little Vancouver Island coastal community of Chemainus, suggested murals would bring in visitors and so offset the local lagging lumber industry.

He was right. By 1984, two years after he came up with the idea, visitors were flocking to town to see the first dozen or so heritage murals, including works depicting First Nations people, a 19th-century British naval ship in Chemainus Bay, and a crew of men hauling logs from the forest. Even small cruise ships made Chemainus a port of call, so their passengers could view the magnificent wall paintings.

Some of those visitors were councillors and businesspeople from across Canada, passing through Chemainus on vacation. Returning home sold on murals, they urged their communities to follow suit, not only to spruce up downtowns, but also to bring in tourist dollars.

Approving councils en set budgets and asked local historians to come up with themes. Tenders were placed in art magazines, sketches received, and contracts signed (usually for $3,000 to $7,000 per mural) for two to three artworks a year. Each of the spray and brush paintings by well-known muralists like Pierre Hardy, Dan Sawatsky and John Hood generally took two to three weeks to complete ― or longer if locals, standing below the scaffolding, asked too many questions or kibitzed at length. This was the pattern across the country.

Painted coast to coast
So, soon, there were murals from B.C. to P.E.I. Today, Chemainus has 33 murals, while places like Moose Jaw, Sask., and Welland, Pembroke and Midland in Ontario also boast some 30 wall paintings apiece. Stony Plains, a 15-minute drive west of Edmonton, is adorned with murals, as is Terrace in northern British Columbia and Athens in Ontario.

All the murals are friendly and all evoke the past. But there are differences. High River in Alberta, for example, is the only place with murals that honour native sons, in this case author W.O. Mitchell and former prime minister Joe Clark. Their portraits appear alongside murals of a cattle drive, a Sunday afternoon polo match (a common form of early 1900s prairies entertainment) and local wartime flight-training efforts.

The dozen murals in Athens portray the arrival of the first train in town, an outdoor band concert and a picnic at nearby Charleston Lake, circa 1915. Oshawa, Ont., has a wall painting of the Oshawa Carriage Works, the forerunner of the giant General Motors plant there, and another of an early music hall, but also murals of Ukrainian dancers and Caribbean drummers that represent the city’s new ethnic mix.

Next page: More artistic delights

In even the bitterest winter weather in Moose Jaw, visitors can drive the downtown grid and enjoy, from the warmth of the car, a mural recalling Sunday-school outings, one honouring firemen, and one (on the wall of a former cocktail lounge) of a sleekly dressed vamp in a provocative pose, her hands cradling a martini glass and long cigarette holder.

But a leisurely stroll, with a break for lunch or a visit to a local museum, is the most common way to see a town’s murals.

Pembroke provides a self-guiding brochure for its many wall paintings, which include renderings of a nighttime street scene from the 1920s, a 1918 fire that was the worst in the town’s history, and the springtime return of swallows to town (Pembroke considers itself Canada’s Capistrano). Most striking of all, because it is three-dimensional and incorporates stained glass windows, is the painting of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns, an order with a retirement home nearby.

Have a dozen – or two
Welland is also steeped in the mural spirit, thanks mainly to local mall owner Mike Allen. He was one of those visitors entranced by Chemainus 20 or so years ago, and he immediately commissioned an artist to tell the history of the Niagara Peninsula, including the men and oxen who carved out the Welland Canal. Today the town boasts more than two dozen murals.

In Hope, B.C, well inland from the Pacific, there is a nine-by-three-metre beauty showing Haida canoeing an ocean inlet among mountains and spouting whales. In Ontario, Gravenhurst has seven murals that recapture the town’s days as a busy lumbering, railroad and steamship centre, while Minden features a depiction of old-style logging runs on the Gull River, St. Jacobs has art imitating life in a mural of black-clad Old Order Mennonites coming to market in their buggies, and Kenora’s many wall paintings include one that illustrates all the sports enjoyed in the resort town.

Winnipeg, Montreal, Halifax and Victoria, along with the Alberta cities of Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, having followed the example of smaller communities, are also dotted with murals.

None is amateurish, none commercial. For example, the Toronto Sun’s mural, running for half a block on the wall of its pressroom, is not an advertisement for the newspaper. Instead it tells the history of Toronto via scores of painted figures, from Governor Simcoe to Wayne Gretsky and Marilyn Bell.

The mural billed as Canada’s biggest is in Midland on the shore of Georgian Bay. Fred Lenz, a well-known figure around town because he had painted so many scenes on the walls of office buildings and shops, decided he wanted to do a mural on a 10-storey disused grain elevator beside the harbour. He submitted sketches to the downtown business association. The work would be a historical representation of the nearby 1640s fortified Jesuit mission of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, and it would measure 66 by 24 metres.

Generations complete work
A contract was signed. Lenz started the project. Then, more than halfway through, he took ill and died. But the work is there for all to see today. His sons, Robert and Stephen, and another artist, Michele Van Maurik, finished it.

That would eventually be an inspiration to the high school students in the little southeastern B.C. mining town of Sparwood, who already had an inspiration in teacher Michelle Loughery. Realizing teenagers can be bored and restless during long summer vacations, she started a students’ murals project. Not only was the resulting artwork professional enough to enliven the rundown town, but five of the budding muralists were invited to Lethbridge to paint a scene there.

A fine addition to Canada’s coast-to-coast picture postcard.

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