190 Disraeli Freeway
"Layin' Down Tracks"
This spectacular Mural (only part of which is visible here) measures in at nearly 14,000 sq. ft., making it the largest Mural in Manitoba at the time of its rendering, and, we believe, the second largest in Canada. This visual feast is probably best enjoyed when one considers the Prairie, Railroad and Music themes all blended and blurred together in a playful visual metaphor of 'Layin' Down Tracks'.
The artwork was rendered by Charlie Johnston and Sarah Johnston. In 2019 the business had been sold and the Mural was painted over. For reaction to the loss of this Mural click click
Original notes follow===
Mural of the Year 2004
Charlie Johnston: "I first met (the client) Dennis Levy back when I was an art instructor
at the Graffiti Gallery. Dennis came to the Gallery with the idea of getting the art
students to do guitar strap designs. I spearheaded this project with the end result being an
artists' series of guitar straps. During the project, Dennis came up with the idea of
wanting to have a Mural painted on his building. He gave me carte blanche as to what
the design of the building would be. He said 'Charlie this is your baby: you can do
whatever you want.' I felt great! I've dreamed about such a project as this. You can't get
any better: this was the dream client."
"I knew that this had to have something to do with music because his company services
the music industry. So I pondered it. I was thinking about metaphors: music is very
abstract. I was looking at a guitar, and the neck of the guitar reminded me of train tracks.
So I took that metaphor and expanded on it. The idea became one of merging imagery of
the railroad with the imagery of music. It's certainly an appropriate theme for Winnipeg
since the railway was a key element in the growth of the city as a transportation center."
"The first character I developed was the steel guitarist at the first corner. He was the
beginning of it really. The design evolved out across that first side (west) wall and
became a real transformational image as well as you move around the three walls. If you
look closely, you'll notice that it's cyclical as well. At the start where Sarah can be seen
singing it's an early-morning sky and as you move around it's later in the day- late
morning, afternoon, evening and night when darkness arrives on the third wall and it
moves 'indoors'. The shift is not that obvious since it's only discernible through the sky, which is
a minimal element; but it's there. There's also a transition from black and white to full
colour. On the first (west) wall, Sarah is rendered in a colourized version of greyscale;
and then there are sepia tones and characters of the limited colour palette until you
encounter the explosion of full colour on the third (rear) wall."
"The design stage was 90% worked out three years ago. The drummer was never quite
right initially; and the original banjo player wasn't very exciting to look at. This and a
few other elements were reworked and changed."
Sarah Johnston: "Music varies even within its own piece: in volume and tonal qualities
for instance. We wanted to represent some of these differences visually with colour.
Different colours can be evocative of different sounds and instruments."
Charlie: "The whole idea was to have each musician in a limited colour scheme and then
their colour scheme is connected to their track so that each track that plugs into the
mixing board represents one of the tracks from one of the musicians. The red track is the
banjo player; the steely blue track is the guitarist; the purple track is the bass guitarist; the
gold track is the saxophone player; the teal track is the pianist, and so on.
I wanted the musicians to be more like muses than representing actual persons."
"This is the first time ever I had the client up on the scaffolding priming the wall for me!
He was clearly pumped and excited about it! It was a new feature for his building. And
it wasn't advertising. He never wanted to advertise or needed to advertise. It was
something he wanted to give back to his community. Before the Mural was done the
building was completely anonymous. His wife's company is also in there: Clarke's
Quality Cases. That's what gives the reference to Clarkesville on the first wall that added
"This is the longest project we've ever had. But we got it done, Sarah and I. There
were one or two days we brought our kids out to paint. We began on April 28th and finished on
August 9th. There were a lot of days that the weather wasn't very good. This project was
so big that we were projecting stuff over 10 different nights. Some of these nights were
full nights where we actually ran out of darkness."
"For this piece to be perfect didn't necessarily involve it being photo realistic; but it had
to be expressive in all the conceptual and stylistic ways I envisioned. The pieces work
well together; it has energy; it has all the things I love about Murals. When you look
on one level it can become an abstract Expressionist piece and yet have a realistic
element to it. It was a wonderful blending of Sarah's style and mine. When she and I did
the train cars together that worked out very well. There's a mechanical methodology to
the way I work sometimes, and Sarah's expressive style worked well with that giving
them a liveliness and an energy. And I enjoyed showing the genres of music in a graffiti
style. That was fun!"
Sarah: "It was a collaborative effort, yes, in the sense that the two styles combined
together and not side-by-side. The blending of the styles offset each other well. Charlie,
having worked outside all these years, has built up a resilience to the elements- he can go
and go and go. I don't have that same energy, and have come to terms with the fact that I
can't work the eight and ten hour days like he can. I do have a good work ethic, though."
"One of the most striking things about this project was the sheer size of it. I had dreams
about it and wondered how it could become a reality. You don't actually know until you
get into the real physicality of it. I guess the most exciting part for me was when we had
done the first run through and then we went back to the first wall and added the extra
things that made it feel finished. I really got that sense of accomplishment then. There
were times that I thought 'are we ever going to get there?'"
Charlie: "This was a pretty hefty challenge and the biggest single project I've ever
worked on. You have to go into something like this with a real cohesive strategy. My
strategy was to get everything happening and get rid of all the blank spaces: bold and
beautiful and then come back and refine it all on the second pass. Some parts of it after
the first time around were left relatively untouched: when something clicks the first time
around you don't mess with it; you leave it! But it was important that other elements
around it got elevated to the same quality level. On the first wall, once I got the steel
guitar character on there, there was very little I had to do. It was the background around
him and other figures that got refined. We really critiqued everything to make sure that
each part worked and did what we wanted it to do. The train tracks off in the distance on
the Clarkesville wall- it was very important that this fit in the way it needed to. We
wanted it to be there but we wanted it to read as a distant element and have a poetic
quality to it. We tried this several times before we got it to work properly. The 'sonic
boom' coming out of the harmonica we wanted to have the right quality."
"We were also working with the architecture of the building in the design. The engine,
the train car and keyboards all become rather three-dimensionalized as you pass the two
corners. Likewise with the drum set except it was a lot trickier to accomplish. I had to
manipulate the composition of the front wall, small wall and middle to get everything to
match up and fit. There's a lot of trompe l'oeil. This Mural used a lot of the tools and
techniques of the various Mural styles, all to achieve the same goal."
Sarah: "Another part that was challenging was making the purple bass player work: to get
his face disappearing into the sky, that ethereal look (Photo 5). When you have wet paint
versus dry paint you're never completely sure how it's going to look until it dries.
Making him recede, making the train cars fade off with him; giving the illusion that he's
rising out of the ground."
Charlie: "Finding the imagery for the Do-Wop girls (Photo 4), and making these boxcars
work as boxcars: those are important key elements. The keyboard player is the client's
daughter who works there. That was the hardest portrait in the whole Mural. The
saxophone player just clicked, but other parts like her were more challenging. I
intentionally separated a limited colour scheme for each musician and identified the
colour sets and ordered all the paint- about 75 or 80 gallons so I had the whole palette
right at the beginning. As we worked on them, we would pull colours out of each
character and we'd wind up using them in the background in a blended way. I worked
very hard to ensure that the colours in the steel guitarist matched the principal colour
crayon that I used for the sketch. If they were a little bit off this way or that way it just
didn't read the same and something got lost. Then on the back wall, we used all of the
exact same colours for the respective tracks in the 'roller coaster' section: saxophone on
the gold track, the train on the red (banjo) track, the steel grey for the steel guitarist, and
so on. Also, there's the same colour scheme in the spotlights."
"Some of the inspiration for this design came from graffiti art styles and some of the
quality of the figures. Quite often in graffiti pieces you'll see figures rendered in limited
colour schemes; so there was that inspiration. There were a lot of repetitive patterns like
the train tracks; but we tried to treat them in a more expressive way as well. Making all
these tracks overlap one another and yet remain individual was challenging."
"The background in this Mural is quite limited to train tracks, sky and ground tones. By
the time you get to the engine (Photo 8) it's night and you see the imagery of the concert
stage. Each track is related to one of the colour schemes of the musicians and this new
band (the client's son's band, Photo 9) and arising from out of them walking down the
tracks. The tracks are dancing around in a roller coaster fashion and ultimately plugging
into the mixing board (Photo 10). The audiophile (again, the client's son, who's initials
happen to be D. J.) is listening to and mixing all of these sounds, which are flying out of
the headphones in an exploding fireworks of colour."
Sarah: "We got to know the people that work there and enjoyed one of the best working
relationships we've ever had. We met people from the neighbourhood too and heard their
stories; and some of them have had tough lives and show real strength of character.
Hearing some of these stories somehow influenced us and got into the work somehow."
Charlie: "This was the summer that the Manitoba Cold Storage building caught fire and
smouldered for 47 days. As we were working on the Mural we watched the building
burn. There was one time where the smoke appeared to coming from out of the
locomotive engine smokestack so that was a rather interesting conclusion."
"We made friends with some of the people in the area. We met a group of men who were
renovating two buildings across the street. I was having trouble with my lift, and they
Sarah: "I liked that this Mural was about music. It's not an ad; it's celebratory. Music
is cross-cultural: everyone can enjoy it. I grew up with music my whole life; my parents
were both musicians, my mom played piano my dad played bass and cello. So I liked the
integrity of the piece for that reason alone. And one street person asked us 'so when is the
CLUB opening?'!! I also like it because people commute everyday and it doesn't cost them
any money to see this flood of colour; or to see just one thing, or to see a different thing
Charlie: "It also makes the building not as anonymous as it once was. One guy who was
a teacher from China took pictures of the whole building and he told us that he was going
to show those pictures to his students back in China because they have nothing like this
"The back wall with the roller coaster train tracks- I had no idea how much work that was
going to be. It practically became a whole different Mural. This project was like doing
ten Murals in one. This was a transformational Mural for me. After I did this one I was a
changed man. I feel like I went through the same metamorphosis that the design did. All
those years working as a sign-painter doing other peoples' designs: there's always some
element of compromise. And then getting into this situation where I didn't have to make
any compromises! It was completely my design and there were no other outside forces
per se. The client was very supportive. It's like the end of very long journey- acres of
painting coming to a conclusion in one place and one time."
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