Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
While painting Winnipeg’s newest mural high above the tree line, artist Charlie Johnston witnessed the city’s history unfolding before him.
"When Black Lives Matter had that major demonstration in June, I was there working on the mural that (portrayed) human rights and the labour movement," he says of the 30-metre-high mural commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.
"It really felt relevant to sit there in my boom truck and witness another major demonstration passing by."
That’s the kind of connection Johnston hopes for everyone passing by Winnipeg’s newest — and most likely tallest — mural, called A Century of Solidarity, completed in mid-July.
As public art, murals invite people to engage in the stories of the past and draw parallels to contemporary issues, says Johnston, 57, who has been painting on Winnipeg walls for the past three decades.
"The goal of the artwork is to find a way to put someone else in your stories so they can see the world as you see it," says the artist. His repertoire includes about 50 Winnipeg murals.
With more than 600 murals across the city, there is much history and artwork to absorb along Winnipeg’s streetscapes. During this stay-at-home summer, consider taking in some of the street level paintings in the downtown, or touring through mural-heavy neighbourhoods such as St. James, Corydon Village, West End or Transcona.
Before heading out, check out Frances Koncan’s story from January where she lists 10 of Winnipeg’s most fascinating murals representing a variety of styles and themes. Take time to scroll through Bob Buchanan’s exhaustive listings at www.themuralsofwinnipeg.com, where users can plot a course by street, neighbourhood, or favourite artist.
Better yet, book a guided walking tour of some of the many murals in the West End, available on weekdays for $5, and $2 for children 12 and under at www.westendbiz.ca. Participants are required to wear a mask for the two-and-a-half hour tour.
Those 80 or so murals, most sponsored or facilitated by West End BIZ, have beautified and brightened the densely populated neighbourhood, says executive director Joe Kornelsen.
"They’re an opportunity to tell a bit of a story, to communicate about people in the neighbourhood who have gone on to do other things and to communicate which cultures have made West End home during the last 150 years."
We’ll get you started by featuring some of the highlights from the West End mural tour with guide Taryn Selch and a private tour with Tom Ethans of Take Pride Winnipeg, which has sponsored or partnered on many of the city’s murals over the past two decades.
275 Broadway, between Garry and Smith Streets
Artist: Charlie Johnston
This huge mural on the east side of Union Centre portraying today’s workers metaphorically standing on the shoulders of the 1919 strikers has great visibility throughout much of downtown, says artist Charlie Johnston, who completed it in eight weeks.
While painting the L-shaped mural, he could see across to bank towers, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The Forks, and Hotel Fort Garry.
"If you were ringing the bell at the (former) St. Boniface Cathedral, you would see the mural," says Johnston of his latest work, which cost upwards of $50,000.
"I feel like it has a lot more power and has quite a bit of presence."
Designed last fall, the figures in the mural carry extra meaning to Johnston because they are all frontline workers during the 2020 pandemic — construction workers in bright safety gear, grocery store staff, and a nurse in scrubs giving an injection (perhaps a vaccination?) at the very top of the mural.
"It looks like we’ve gone through some sort of turning of the wheel of time," he says.
"The 1919 strike happened during the last pandemic."
Johnston recommends viewing the mural from the surface level parking lot to take in all the details, including the ghost strikers and oversized newspaper headlines.
"If the artwork has layers of meaning in it, you can absorb it over time," he says of how to engage with a mural.
Sargent Avenue and Furby Street
Artist: Mandy Van Leeuwen
One of the few West End murals with a painted title on it, this one commemorates the 100th anniversary of when some Manitoba women first received the right to vote in 1916. It portrays Nellie McClung and other participants in The Women’s Parliament, a mock legislative session reversing gender roles, held during the debates around whether women should vote in elections. McClung is depicted impersonating Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin, right down to the snapping of his suspenders, and the history of the fight for voting rights is portrayed in the flurry of papers cascading down the right side of the mural.
Sargent Avenue and Spence Street
Artists: Annie Beach and Brianna Wentz and neighbourhood youth
Painted on a large board mounted to the side of Thrive Thrift Shop, this smaller mural depicts the West End through ethnic textiles and cultural symbols of the people living in the neighbourhood. This quilt of many textures is based on a cropped street map of the West End and welcomes people to the neighbourhood with the word ‘home’ painted in multiple languages. This mural was part of the mural mentorship program of the West End BIZ.
Ellice Avenue and Spence Street
Artists: Annie Beach and Brianna Wentz and neighbourhood youth
Located just north of the University of Winnipeg, this mural marking the 150th anniversary of confederation celebrates Canada’s Indigenous people and the many landscapes of Canada. The child at the centre of the piece symbolize both the promise of a future and the diversity of Canada, says mural tour guide Taryn Selch of West End Biz.
"The focal point is this child. Annie (Beach) and Brianna (Wentz) wanted that child to be able to represent any of us," she says.
Painted with the help of neighbourhood youth through the mural mentorship program, this piece invites viewers in for a close look to see the tiny fish and other creatures within the waves.
Portage Avenue and Marjorie Street
Artists: Jennifer Johnson Mosienko and Julia Beveridge
With its 5 metre high orange octopus clutching a water bottle, this recent mural in St. James adds colour and interest to the brick wall of Underworld Scuba, as well as promoting the message that single-use plastics damage the environment.
"That’s a beautiful mural, colourful and bright and so it gives a little bit of life to the neighbourhood," says Tom Ethans of Take Pride Winnipeg, which has given new life to Winnipeg’s mural scene over the last 22 years.
It also demonstrates that any brick wall with visibility to pedestrians and motorists can become a destination for art lovers.
"A good location is somewhere where people can drive by and see it," says Ethans of what he looks for when scouting for new mural spots.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
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