MACLEAN’S REPORTS

WHAT ARE FENCES FOR? PAINT-INS!

A west coast story of how a city lost an argument and found an art gallery

BARRY BROADFOOT May 14 1966
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

WHAT ARE FENCES FOR? PAINT-INS!

A west coast story of how a city lost an argument and found an art gallery

BARRY BROADFOOT May 14 1966

WHAT ARE FENCES FOR? PAINT-INS!

A west coast story of how a city lost an argument and found an art gallery

VANCOUVER DEARLY loves a slam-bang civic fight. And what could provide a better cause for war than the decision by the province’s domineering Social Credit government to tear up the city’s beloved courthouse lawn and erect an ugly centennial fountain? Citizens rolled up their sleeves and prepared to wage The Battle of the Fountain. Then a miracle. A poetic breeze swept in to soothe the anger in the April air.

Instead of argument, there was art; in lieu of mudslinging, murals. It was called the Great Paint-In and for two gay, colorful weeks Vancouver was as much in fête as the left bank of the Seine or London in the spring.

What is a Paint-In? Well, it’s a protest, like a sit-in, except that people paint and other people gather round and the mayor and the newspapers and the civic boosters and the provincial government all stop swinging at each other and start swinging together.

The fountain that started it all is a $45,000 grey granite affair slightly smaller than a baseball diamond and graced by 40-foot leaping jets. One alderman who sneaked a peek at the model said it looks “like a water buffalo emerging from a pool by a mound of colored tile in the middle of a purple garden.” A few artists complained that they hadn't been asked to submit a design but the real brouhaha didn’t start until late March when t h e contractor’s excavator crunched into the courthouse lawn and ripped out the flowering magnolia trees.

Alarmed by the swelling protests, the contractor quickly put up a plywood fence to hide the offending hole. That didn’t stop university students doing what they always do. i They picketed. Average men-in-the-

street grew surly. Letters poured in on editors. And then when the whole situation seemed likely to explode. Mayor William Rathie suddenly remembered cunning Tom Sawyer and j said: “Paint that fence.” He offered j protection in the form of a city permit to any artist, and prizes of j $50, $25 and $15 from his own I pocket for the best murals.

Half a day of startled silence while Rathie’s cry for hue sank in, and then j a collective whoop of joy. Serious j artists tumbled down from their West ! End attics, Sunday painters donned ! their splattered smocks and an Indian j chief, who had always wanted to paint a tepee in a sunset, deserted his dockside job. They were joined by grade-school kids, garage mechanics, grandmothers, school teachers and a BC Lions football tackle.

Under the eyes of amazed downtown shoppers and office workers the 130-panel fence was speedily transformed into a brilliant panorama of pop art, op art, realism, surrealism and caricature. One exhibitor contributed a dresser mirror in an ornate wooden frame. A sculptor, not to be left out in the artistic cold, quickly welded together some iron pipes and called it “Fence.”

All the exhibits were spontaneous, most were in the spirit of fun and some, in the opinion of a panel of judges headed by the director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Richard Simmons, were very good indeed. The panel awarded the mayor’s first prize (for $50) to a geometric abstract in red, yellow and orange by art students Sid Tupper, 17, and Lindsay Frost, 19. The second and third prizes were also abstracts. But it was the fourth and fifth prize-winners (again abstract painters) who were most envied. By a curious quirk of public relations, they won CPA air tickets to Hawaii.

That was the expert opinion. As newspaper and television men played the Paint-In for all (and perhaps

more than) it was worth, it became clear that the average Vancouverite eschewed the abstracts and favored a nice realistic depiction of the magnolia trees so ruthlessly uprooted by the contractor. And the head of the city’s tourist bureau didn’t care who won. In his opinion the do-it-yourself exhibition was worth $1,000,000 to Vancouver.

“It's the first original thing in this town for 10 years,” said Chief Justice J. O. Wilson after inspecting the show during a noon recess. “In seven years I have never seen Vancouver so blissfully carefree,” wrote art critic David Watmough of the Sun. “Several tours of this eruption of color convinced me that what has happened is too precious to be allowed to die.”

Everybody agreed, including Mayor Rathie. As he paused before a mural depicting Premier Bennett as Batman (or Dynaman as he’s known in BC), the mayor let it be known that Vancouver may soon have the first permanent floating clapboard art gallery in the world.

BARRY BROADFOOT