Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Right up our alley

Robert Sweeney's meticulous sketches of Winnipeg's streets and buildings reveal the city's charms

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You won't find Robert Sweeney penning irate letters to the editor or organizing protests to save heritage buildings.

"I'm not an activist," the St. James resident says. "I pretty much stick to myself."

But in his own introverted way, Sweeney, 58, is encouraging Winnipeggers to appreciate their unique surroundings. For more than 30 years, the artist and designer has been making meticulously detailed sketches of local buildings, bridges, parks, rivers and street scenes.

"I've always been fascinated with streetscapes and the urban landscape," he says. "It's become a passion to document all aspects of the city."

Sweeney has two upcoming book-signing appearances to promote Portraits of Winnipeg: The River City in Pen and Ink, a slim hardcover collection of nearly 50 of his precise sketches, recently published by Winnipeg's Turnstone Press.

He'll be at McNally Robinson Booksellers Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m., and at Chapters in St. Vital Centre on Aug. 20 from 1 to 4 p.m.

The $20 book, targeted at both tourists and residents, includes scenes of the Exchange District and downtown -- including newer structures such as Manitoba Hydro Place and the MTS Centre -- as well as landmarks such as the Legislative Building, Union Station, St. Boniface Basilica, St. Boniface City Hall, Royal Canadian Mint, St. Mary's Academy, Dalnavert, the Ukrainian Labour Temple, the Witch's Hut at Kildonan Park and the Esplanade Riel.

Each image is accompanied by text, but the book is mostly pictorial. An appendix dates each structure and credits the architect.

For many years the artist used only black ink, but Portraits of Winnipeg sees him branching out into full colour.

Sweeney, a history buff, generally starts with a photograph -- either recent or archival -- as a point of reference. It takes him 30 to 35 hours to complete an 11x17-inch sketch.

He started his current colour series in 2007 and has completed about 150 of them. "I'm working on about 60 more," he says. "I usually have 12 or 14 on the go at a time."

He begins with a very rough sketch, then draws in pencil, does the black inking, and finally adds coloured pencil.

He's not trying to duplicate a realistic image, he says. "It's not necessarily an exact likeness, but an interpretation. There's a lot of artistic licence... I'm trying to create a mood."

Sweeney, raised in St. James, earned a fine arts degree at the University of Manitoba and became a building and industrial designer, winning awards in Europe and Japan.

The lifelong bachelor considered becoming an architect and does have architectural training, but realized he didn't have the personality for project management. "I'm an idea person," he says.

In the 1980s and '90s he worked in England, designing furniture, lighting, aircraft interiors and household products. After returning to Winnipeg in the mid-'90s, he did the illustrations for two books, Winnipeg Landmarks, Volumes I and II, with text by historian Murray Peterson.

He still does design consulting, but says he isn't much of a self-promoter and increasingly devotes his time to sketching.

One of his favourite buildings -- included in Portraits of Winnipeg -- is the University of Winnipeg's Centennial Hall, a modernist gem that was hailed internationally when it opened in 1972.

"I'm an avowed modernist... from the Bauhaus on up," he says. "Right now, I'm very concerned about the loss of the airport terminal (the current one from 1964), which is scheduled for demolition. That's one building that should definitely be saved, because it's a jewel box -- a wonderful example of mid-century modern....

"Between the building and the integration of the artwork and original furnishings, it was a complete design concept."

Polo Park, lovingly captured in Sweeney's book in its original 1959 incarnation as a shopping centre without a roof, was another mid-century gem, Sweeney says. It wasn't practical for Winnipeg's climate, but other buildings of the period, he says, should be valued for their cool, elegant, subtly detailed architecture.

"Mid-century modern buildings are not considered historical enough, and yet they are. We're in danger of losing a lot of stuff from the mid-20th century, which we will regret later on."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2011 D1

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