Artist Mike Svob, 35, recalls that when he was a small child in Welland, Ont., his home town was “a bustling little place.” Massive Great Lakes freighters passed through the heart of the industrial city along the Welland Canal, 20 km southwest of Niagara Falls, and the downtown stores did a brisk business.
“Then, around 1965, it started to die,” Svob said. Shoppers fled to new suburban malls, and the city core seemed to become even more deserted when a canal bypass, completed in 1972, routed shipping to the outskirts. Meanwhile, some of Welland’s major employers were laying off workers or shutting down completely. By 1982, the community’s unemployment rate was more than 30 per cent. But, in 1988, the city of 45,000 began reinventing itself as a tourist attraction: it became one of several communities to erect eye-catching murals with local historical themes.
Now, tour buses have begun to stop in Welland, and businessmen have built two new hotels. Svob, who now lives in Coquitlam, B.C., has made trips home to paint two of Welland’s murals. Said the artist: “The town seems a lot more upbeat.” Across the country, communities from Welland to Stony Plain, Alta., have attempted to pump tourist dollars into the local economy by transforming blank downtown walls into vast, colorful canvases. The oldest and by far the most successful project is tiny Chemainus on Vancouver Island, 80 km north of Victoria. Once a fading sawmill town, Chemainus erected its first mural in 1982. Said Joe Hudak, vicechairman of the mural project: “There was absolutely no tourism in Chemainus then. We’re a mile and a half off the highway, and the only tourists who stumbled in were the ones who were lost.”
Since then, however, the murals have become a major attraction. The town has a population of only 3,500, but its Chamber of Commerce estimates that 400,000 tourists visited last year. More than 70 local businesses, most of them stores and restaurants, have
opened since the buildings were painted. Hudak, who was once the town pharmacist, now helps his wife run three Chemainus art galleries. Said the businessman: “The murals were the catalyst for everything.”
The project grew out of a more modest plan
to fix up the town’s shopping district. Organizers concluded that murals would enliven the walls bordering a downtown green space. Inspired by centuries-old religious wall paintings that he had seen on a trip to Romania, the project’s first executive director, Karl Schutz, decided that Chemainus’s past should be the subject of the murals. Through government funding and corporate and private donations, the community eventually invested more than $250,000 in the undertaking. The first painting, completed in 1982 by Victoria artist Frank Lewis and his assistant, Nancy Lagana, was based on a 1902 photograph of a crew hauling a log out of the forest.
The first years of the mural project coincided with an economic crisis: by 1983, Chemainus’s last sawmill had shut down, resulting in a loss of 500 jobs. However, the town’s future looked much brighter two years later. A new, state-of-the-art mill had opened, providing 200
jobs—and the mural initiative expanded.
Now, 26 murals, some of them more than 100 feet long, adorn the community’s walls. Artists have received between $4,000 and $8,000 for the individual works. Svob, who in 1986 painted a Chemainus mural of a 1948 streetscape, describes the project as “one of the best investments the town ever made.” Indeed, the murals, which depict subjects ranging from steam locomotives to the students and teachers of the town’s old one-room schoolhouse, have proven to be extraordinarily powerful tourist magnets. On summer weekends, parking space is at a premium—and visitors spend generously in craft shops and in five new antique malls. And Chemainus, which bills itself as “the little town that did,” has even more ambitious plans for the future. Schutz, who resigned from the murals project in 1986, is
now spearheading the development of the town’s Pacific Rim Artisan Village. Expected to be fully operational by 1995, the $40-million complex will provide residences, studios and gallery space for overseas artists and craftsmen.
After seeing firsthand what murals had accomplished in Chemainus, organizers of Welland’s Festival of Arts launched their own program in 1988. Since then, the organization has raised $1 million in government grants, corporate donations and public contributions to the project. Now, the city has 27 murals scattered through the downtown and the outlying areas. They range from Toronto artist John Hood’s sun-dappled painting of the stately Welland Club, a private establishment still in operation, to Wainfleet, Ont., artist Bas Degroot’s imposing tribute to men and heavy modem machinery working in tandem on the canal bypass. Said Festival of Arts executive director
Rick Woodward: “The murals are a slice of history, a moment in time for our community.”
Public response to the Welland murals has been largely favorable, but the canal city is still a long way from establishing itself as the Chemainus of the Great Lakes. Confident that some of the tourists going to Niagara Falls would make a detour to Welland, organizers initially predicted that the murals would draw one million visitors a year by 1992. Festival of Arts organizers now say that it is difficult to determine how many tourists have made the side trip, but they concede that their initial estimates turned out to be well wide of the mark. “We’re not Niagara Falls yet,” said festival chairman John Van Kooten, the publisher and general manager of the Tribune, a Welland newspaper.
Still, the murals do appear to have been a benefit to Welland. Since they first appeared, tour buses from across Ontario, Quebec and New York have begun visiting the city, and some upscale stores have opened. Meanwhile, two new chain-operated hotels have opened, and an existing hotel built a large addition. Said Van Kooten: “We feel very strongly that, if it wasn’t for the murals, we wouldn’t have the new hotels.”
As Welland’s mural project winds down, another is just beginning in Stony Plain, a community 20 km west of Edmonton with a population of 6,800. Earlier this month, townspeople unveiled the first three commissions— all by Alberta artists—of a 26-mural project. Said tourism and community development official Pamela Smith: “Tourism experts claim we needed at least three major attractions; we have a winery, and a multicultural museum that attracts 100,000 visitors annually. This place is rich in history, so murals will be the third.”
Fuelled by $22,500 in government grants
and a corporate donation of paint and supplies, the project got under way this year on two Main Street walls and on the Stony Plain Community Centre, located one block away. The south wall of Victor’s Shoe Store is the site of Delbume, Alta., artist Terry Winter’s montage of the life of Cornelia Railey Wood. Wood, who was bom in 1892 and died six years ago, was a pioneer teacher, actress, writer, MLA and
Stony Plain mayor. One block down Main Street, Calgary artist David More depicted the Jacob Miller General Store, which was the town’s first business when it opened in 1904. “While More was painting it, locals insisted he put in a cheese cutter—and a dog,” said Smith. “There was always a dog around a general store.”
The subject of Stony Plain’s third mural, a work by Calgary artist Douglas Driediger, is Israel Umbach, a former sheriff and tax collector. The painting shows Umbach about to commit his most famous act: in 1907, he wrapped a logging chain and a padlock around the wheels of a Canadian Northern Railway locomotive when the company was delinquent in paying its local taxes.
In all of the communities with murals, organizers note that, in addition to attracting tourists, the paintings give residents a stronger sense of identity. Welland landscape artist Ross Beard has painted three of his home town’s murals, all relating in some way to the most visible local landmark, the canal. One on the East Main Street liquor store, titled The Pond—On New Year’s Eve, features the setting where he used to skate with his friends 20 years ago. Upturned earth at the edges signals that construction on the canal bypass has begun; in the background, the ghostly metal towers of the old canal’s lift bridges hover above the trees. “It shows how profound an effect the canal had on those of us who lived there,” said Beard. “People really related to the theme.” With their lively, painted buildings, Welland and other communities are proudly displaying their myths and their memories.
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