Mural of the Year 2002
This wonderful Mural was the result of an extremely harmonious three-way collaboration
between the rendering artists, Mandy van Leeuwen, Jennifer Johnson Pollock and Charlie
Johnston. Its location, given its encompassing themes could not be in a more strategic
place: entering the downtown from North Main, it's the very first thing that you see. And
it's BIG, it's Beautiful, and its message is clear- Welcome to Downtown Winnipeg!
A year and a half before paint ever touched this wall, Charlie Johnston was living in
North Main and used to take that Main Street route into the downtown every day. He'd
drive past all the north end Main Street Murals (a Neighbourhoods Alive! led initiative in
2001) on his way in, but THIS wall at Main and Higgins had remained untouched. "I
loved this wall. It was the BEST wall and it was screaming out to me to be painted," says
Johnston. So in 2001, he approached and began to actively lobby CentreVenture to do a
Mural there. At one of the meetings, Charlie brought digitally modified photos of the
wall to give them an indication of how the wall would look with artwork on it. Although
the project didn't go ahead until much later the following year, the seed, the germ of the
idea had been planted.
The following spring, interest in a potential Mural project at this site had gained
considerable momentum, other interest and funding groups had surfaced and stepped
forward, and this collective group became interested in looking at proposed designs from
another well known artistic force in Winnipeg: the Utopian Arts Design team of Mandy
van Leeuwen and Jennifer Johnson. And the group liked what they saw. Says Mandy:
"Just as the wall was huge, so was the project with several different committees and five
primary funding sponsors that had to be answered to, so we had to create the best
possible Mural design if it was going to sufficiently impress all these people. Our main
dealings were with CentreVenture and Take Pride Winnipeg who helped us nail down
what they wanted that they could then show to the other participating groups. We came
up with a small painting on a board and it was agreed that this was a good starting point.
So then we mucked around with some of the buildings and went from there".
Johnson Pollock is still grateful today to Bruce Kondratuk who donated the wall and
helped out with some funds for prepping the wall, and to CentreVenture for making the
whole project possible. "This project would never have happened without
Centreventure. This is their designated area. This part of Main Street they're trying to
reform, beautify and revitalize."
Once approval on the project was imminent, it became clear that the full three-way
collaboration was needed to meet the challenges posed by this huge undertaking. There
was a pretty firm timeline that the work had to be completed by, plus Jennifer was getting
married (Mandy was her bridesmaid) and this was taking up some of their available time.
"And the grocery list was phenomenal," says Mandy, and here she is not referring to a
grocery list of food, but rather the list of elements or themes the clients wanted included
in the Mural. Charlie, with a hint of pride in his craft, likes to carry this metaphor further.
"We're the grocery store clerks; we're the gourmet chefs; you give us these raw materials
and we'll use them to create this gourmet dish which is the design." All three of the
artists today agree that it was a wonderful collaboration for each of them, that there was
great freedom in sharing ideas and suggestions, great rapport and camaraderie, and
further agree that none of them could have achieved such a result on their own. There
was no lead artist for this project. "It doesn't work that way in a three way collaboration,
at least not with us", says van Leeuwen. In fact, all 3 artists worked all over all aspects of
the final rendering. "To break up who did what on this Mural would be incorrect because
from beginning to end our hands were fully involved in it," emphasizes van Leeuwen.
But getting back to that grocery list. Mandy: "They gave us a grocery list of ideas and
things and concepts they wanted to see in it. Aboriginal community, colours of the
sidewalk (along Main Street), Winnipeg architecture, Thunderbird House, Indian
Folklore, something contemporary, something new, the current times of Downtown
Winnipeg, they wanted a gateway and immigration themes." How on earth could all of
these elements be possibly included in one piece of artwork? The artists wrestled a bit
with the type and amount of aboriginal content and how it would manifest itself in the
finished Mural. The general consensus was that some indigenous content was absolutely
essential, but didn't want the work overpowered by this one element, as there was already
a lot of aboriginal themed Murals and art in that immediate area. Nor were any of them
prepared to mimic aboriginal art themselves. A different approach was needed.
"They wanted an icon for the area as well", says van Leeuwen, "so we had to come up
with something that was totally different than everything else in the area. That's how
copper girl evolved. As far as human content goes, it's overshadowed by a lot of the
buildings in the background (which were also very important to the piece). We wanted to
put a human figure in there, something that everyone would enjoy looking at. We chose
a WOMAN; she's non-aggressive. Both men and women enjoy looking at a female form.
Then the issue of heritage comes into effect as well. Our Model, Michelle, was Metis
(See Photo #4). We've varied the facial structure a bit from the model, but you still get
the same sense with the high cheekbones. This area of Main is a point where immigrants
were coming when they'd get off the train. There was an Immigration building there as
Charlie: "The idea of the copper lady herself, it was really Jennifer's idea. She wanted
some kind of woman figure welcoming figure so we thought why don't we make her a
metal sculpture like a counterpart to the Golden Boy?!?" (The Golden Boy is a signature
and highly visible gold leaf statue, landmark, and symbol of prosperity perched at the
Top of the Provincial Legislature Building in Downtown Winnipeg since 1919)
The copper woman is made of copper because copper was considered more precious to
aboriginal culture than any of the other metals. "It could be used for a lot more purposes;
it was practical and pliable," says van Leeuwen. "A lot of people ask, 'Well what's her
significance?' Well, you don't want everything to be explained in your art sometimes.
Sometimes you want the viewer to participate on their own and take it in how they want
to see it." Mandy does offer some suggestions, though. "She's like an icon for the area.
Also, women were of water, they were keepers of water. They were considered in the
aboriginal community to be the more essential sex- they looked after the food and water
and reproduced. And this is also coming from a female artist!" Mandy winks. "And we
just figured a woman would be nice to look at. Her pose is inviting, it's free, it's spiritual
extending outwards and upwards, and she looks like she's expecting someone. We feel it
says 'welcome to Downtown, we want people to come'. It also ties in very well with the
immigrants welcome, immigration theme that was desired by the clients. The copper
lady is the very metaphor of the gateway."
In their research, the artists were unable to find any photo references to the Immigration
office sign that for years hung from the side of one of the hotels downtown, so they did
their best to surmise what it could have looked like from oral reports and placed it on the
side of the Royal Alexander Hotel building, which, although not the correct building, was
the one hotel building that was chosen to be included in this Mural for its architectural
and historical interest.
The artists' research took them to the library, the Archives, and to Thunderbird House.
The eagle shape (on the top right side of the sky directly above Thunderbird House)
comes from the story of the Thunderbird, a story told to the artists by an elder at
Thunderbird House. Mandy: "Children were the only ones who could see the
Thunderbird when there was lightning. If the children were fortunate enough the stems
of the lightning would shoot out and it would trace the outline of an eagle. Any adults
with the child could only see it if the child would LET them see it, then they could see it
but on their own they couldn't see it." "The Thunderbird and the eagle are what watches
over the Indian people." Jennifer adds, "For the child to have the ability to see the
Thunderbird was a very positive and fortunate sign."
The pattern of colours in the scarf of the guy with the map (see Photo #3) was also quite
deliberate. Jennifer: "The sidewalks in that area of Main Street today are the red, white,
black and yellow squares like tiling right on the sidewalks. The four colours illustrated
represent the medicine wheel: the four colours, the four directions, the four elements, as
well as each colour representing an animal." Mandy: "We also have animal meanings,
which in turn have meanings." Charlie: "They're also the four colours of humanity: red,
yellow, black and white."
The buildings are bowing or leaning inwards, a technique known as global perspective.
Mandy: "That was done for interest, it was something new and contemporary, you don't
just want to have a bunch of buildings there when you can have some fun with it, and it's
pleasing to the eye." Charlie: "We wanted the whole thing to have a dramatic power. I
don't like mediocre designs. Global perspective, unlike a three-point perspective, is a
curvilinear four-point perspective because our eyes are round. Optically there really
aren't that many straight lines, only the ones we fabricate. So the whole idea was to turn
the area into a curvilinear global perspective space. And that was the optical perspective
we wanted to use to present all the elements and create a space that pulls you in."
The artists chose buildings that had some historical or architectural significance to
Winnipeg. With the exception of Thunderbird House, the Bank building at the far left is
the only one still standing (now known as the Empire nightclub). Next to it are The
Royal Alexander Hotel, Old City Hall, Old Market Square, Thunderbird House, and Old
Firehall #1. The modern skyscraper highrises are the Richardson, Trizec, and TD
towers, all well-known points along Winnipeg's skyline.
The lady on the extreme left was Charlie's portrait of Marie Curie, the Discoverer of
radium. "We wanted the Mural scene to represent immigration and people coming in,
and this is supposed to represent people coming in circa the first decade of the 1900s, and
I was looking for somebody that had the look of that era, someone with a strong ethnic
face. I found a photograph of her and she really had that look I was going for."
Stan is there, too (see Photo 5). He's the guy holding his toolbox a couple of figures to
the right of the man with the scarf and map. Charlie: "I put Stan in there because the
Mural is so much about Winnipeg architecture and my dad being a construction worker
worked on a lot of the edifices that are in the city. And I wanted to do homage to him; it
was the first thing I had done after he had passed away."
Before the Mural was even complete, the city was abuzz about this wall. Everyone
seemed to have an opinion on it, almost all were extremely positive. Several people
would stop to chat with the artists daily. Everyone was curious about Golden Boy's new
'girlfriend'. Their WORST review came on right on Day One at the site. It's an amusing
story, but one in which the particulars aren't that important or necessary here except to
say that the critic made a real connection with Charlie. ;-)
All three artists have a sense of pride with their finished work.
Charlie Johnston: "A lot of people have referred to it. It's a fully integrated image, what
I've called a full pictorial."
Jennifer Johnson Pollock: "I think this piece is most significant in terms of the difference
it has made to the wall from what it looked like before (Photo 6) and to that area of your
sightline of the locale that includes the wall that many people see almost every day. It's
rewarding to know you've been involved in something that does that for that many
Mandy van Leeuwen: "Yes, we're proud: It's the biggest project that we've ever done
and has impacted the most people. There are 52,000 cars that drive by that area in an
eight-hour period. It was an ugly wall. It was a real eyesore and now it's been made into
something that's bright and colourful. It's not about ownership of the wall; it's about
whether or not we've made an improvement in that community. We have pride with the
work we do but we don't let it go to our heads: it's not about us; it's about the area."