DATELINE: CHEMAINUS

Painting a town out of a corner

JANE O'HARA November 18 1985
DATELINE: CHEMAINUS

Painting a town out of a corner

JANE O'HARA November 18 1985

Painting a town out of a corner

DATELINE: CHEMAINUS

Chemainus, a logging hamlet on Vancouver Island’s east coast with a population of 4,000, once confronted the fate of all one-industry towns. In the late 1970s the major business, a sawmill, was dying, and the spectre of the ghost town haunted the community. “Vacancy” signs hung in the windows of stores, and “For Sale” signs sprouted on lawns. And the eco-

nomic prospects were bleak: the 56year-old MacMillan Bloedel sawmill, which employed more than one-third of the work force, was about to close. But Chemainus refused to die; instead, its residents turned it into a major tourist centre, attracting 175,000 visitors in the past three years. Now, cars from as far away as California and New Mexico cruise the streets. The town that local artist Dan Sawatzky once called “a little hole in the ground, full of derelicts” has become what Judith Blair, a visitor from nearby Nanaimo, calls “a town that gives us all hope.”

No longer dependent on the sawmill, which finally closed in 1983, the people of Chemainus, a one-hour drive north of Victoria, have built such a successful tourist industry that 30 new businesses have opened since 1981. Boasted Mayor Graham Bruce: “I am now may-

or of the fastest-growing municipality in North America.” The single most important reason for Chemainus’s renewed vigor is the 16 massive murals which depict the history of the area, painted on the walls of everything from the B.C. Telephone Building to the Chemainus Fire Hall. Together the murals constitute what proud Chemainiacs now refer to as “the largest

outdoor art gallery in Canada” and have spun off such thriving industries as art galleries, ice cream stands and pedicabs.

It took a combination of imagination, energy and civic pride to revive the town. And Bruce, 33, who is mayor of North Cowichan, a municipality of four communities including Chemainus, is chiefly responsible. In 1979 he decided that the town could not depend on the outmoded mill as its major employer. To widen the town’s economic base, Bruce devised a scheme to attract the tourists who annually flock to Vancouver Island’s scenery.

In 1981 the seven members on the North Cowichan council unanimously approved a $260,000 Downtown Revitalization Project for Chemainus. With the help of a provincial government funding program the town installed

new sidewalks, flower boxes, woodcarved signs and cedar siding on storefronts on the three-block main street. Then it hired retired cabinetmaker and former millworker Karl Schutz to co-ordinate the project.

But Schutz envisioned something grander than simply sprucing up the main thoroughfare. He and his wife, Betty, had toured Romanian monasteries 10 years before, where he had seen 400year-old murals depicting the local history. He began promoting the idea that “that is what we need for Chemainus.” But the townspeople were uncertain, in part because of the average $3,000 payment for each mural. Fighting hard to convince them of his vision, he recalls that some residents threatened to run him out of town if he insisted on “blowing” money in the midst of a recession. Others wanted the murals painted on plywood so they could later be taken down. Said Schutz: “Most of the millworkers had never been in an art gallery. They thought giving money to art was like throwing it in a hole.” Despite the smalltown politicking, the development committee hired Victoria artist Frank Lewis to paint the first mural in April, 1982. For a month, Lewis painted on the side of a coffee shop whose owner had relinquished the space. Entitled Steam, Donkey at Work, it is a colorful depiction of a log being pulled out of the forest by a steam-driven winch, known in the late 1800s as a steam donkey. Soon, four more murals went up on other walls in town. All were a success. Said Schutz: “People who once were skeptical of the idea recognized their ancestors and said things like, ‘My father never wore boots like that.’ ” The economy was still in a downturn the following summer, but Chemainiacs had become more interested in the project. So Schutz took a more audacious step. He organized a festival of mural-painting that lasted throughout

July, 1983. Artists from across the province submitted sketches taken from historical photographs of the area to the development committee for approval. From the beginning, the committee developed strict guidelines —murals had to deal with the history of the town and be based on photographs—so that, according to Bruce, “people would not come in here hellbent for leather and start putting murals on any subject all over the place.” The festival in 1983 was a town celebration. A street party, with musicians and square-dancing in front of

the one-storey credit union building, kicked off the event on July 2. Artists whose sketches had won committee approval erected scaffolds on walls and began painting while 20,000 tourists came to stare before the summer ended. Said Sandy Clark, who along with her assistant, Lea Goward, painted a mural entitled Arrival of the “Reindeer” in Horse Shoe Bay. “One of the real difficulties was concentrating while being approached by tourists.” Tourists were just one of the many problems. Mainstreet mural-painting also proved challenging for artists

used to the comforts of indoor studios. The vast dimensions of blank walls and the difficulty of working in the glare of natural light forced Clark to repaint the blue sky of her mural twice before she finally decided that the color was right. Worse, it rained almost continually throughout the month-long festival. As a gag, Sawatzky, who painted a mural of the inside of a general store on the side of the B.C. Telephone building, wore a wet suit and life jacket while he worked.

Sawatzky remembers thinking that he would do the job, take the payment that the council offered and then “blast off after it was over.” Instead, he sold the house he owned outside Vancouver, moved with his wife to Chemainus and opened a successful art gallery, one of four that has opened in the town since 1982.

In the end, the Schutz-Bruce plan worked. Two years ago Chemainus won a prize in the Downtown Revitalization Awards Competition in New York City. More importantly, on weekends hundreds of visitors browse through the little shops of the newly renovated Victorian mall, a former abandoned warehouse. At the Willow Tea Room, the former Masonic lodge, customers queue under the gingerbread facade to enjoy afternoon muffins and imported tea. “This town is unique,” said Nell Sacks of Farmington, New Mexico. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Lately, the paint brushes have been put aside in favor of another project, also launched by Bruce, that will involve Chemainus in Vancouver’s world exposition next year. “We wanted to do something for Expo 86,” said Bruce, “and since we could not afford a pavilion, we figured we would build a boat to bring visitors here to see the town we are so proud of.” This summer six locals spent a total of 8,000 hours building a 92-foot wooden brigantine sailboat, the Spirit of Chemainus—its name symbolizing the tenacity of what Bruce calls “The Little Town That Did.” Launched two months ago, the boat will travel back and forth from Vancouver’s Expo—a day’s sail away—to promote island tourism.

The spirits of Chemainus got another lift in December, 1984, with the reopening of the MacMillan Bloedel sawmill, a more economical, modernized mill which now employs 100 people. At the same time, the tourist industry continues to flourish. The local development committee is even beginning to talk about plans to build a marina and hotel-convention centre. Said Tony Moneo, a local businessman: “Before, the people who lived here lived nowhere. Now they live in Chemainus.”

— JANE O'HARA in Chemainus