The Murals of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Murals
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34 Higgins Avenue    Location Map

"Men at Work."
The entire East Wall. Shown here is Charlie Johnston's 2009 restoration of his original 1997 wall with many enhancements. To see a shot of the original wall, see Photo 4. To see its companion wall which is rarely viewed by Winnipeggers as it faces the river, see Photo 3.

Location: S side Higgins & Mordaunt; South and East Face

Occupant: Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 254

District: City Centre

Neighbourhood: South Point Douglas

Artist(s): Charlie Johnston (C5 Artworks)

Year: 1997


Artist's remarks on the 2009 restoration immediately follow. Charlie's original commentary on the 2 Murals follows below that.

Charlie Johnston: "When I look at one of my Murals I think I see it differently than everybody else; and I look at the things I would do differently. These walls were done in 1996 and 1997. I returned some of the little things I wanted to have and did numerous enhancements. The plumber's butt crack (South wall) is more evident now! His pants aren't pulled up quite as much as before. He's at the 'end' of the Mural."

"This was my first wall Mural proper. I had been doing large scale sign work for 7 years, but it was my first real shot at doing a full Mural proper. It's a mix of my inspirations of the Diego Rivera's Murals, the Mexican Muralists' approach and the glorification of the working class individuals; as well as mixing in my affinity of comic book style."

"The best thing about redoing this, however was breathing more life into these figures. It was a dream job, to return to a design I love so much and bring out everything in it that maybe I hadn't achieved at the time for whatever reasons. I used canvas quality oil paints on the original wall, the varnish was separating from the paint and the wall and it was scabbing. I found this new product that didn't exist back then that enabled me to solve that. I clear coated the whole thing with this paint component. After I power washed all the varnish off it actually fett like a new varnish coat because it brought back all the colours of the original oil paints, which had faded which gave me a fresh start. I still had to repaint the whole thing though- it would have never qualified as a finish coat."

"I had the choice of reproducing it exactly the way I had 13 years ago or recreating the design with plenty of enhancements. Better portraits, better musculature on the pipefitter, numerous enhancements on the welder. The folds in the welder's arm looked too much like an accordian arm, and not natural. I took a picture of one of the welders and got a more actual feeling of the folds of the fabric of the welder's arm. All the pipework on the wall was redone here. Many details in the background were redone, and the characters got a significant makeover. Less cartoony, and clothing more natural. I put Stanley, my dad in it. I think I intended this figure to be him before; and now I've really made it into him. There's a newer self portrait of me fixing the toilet."

This is the 100th anniversary of their union- they are celebrating this fall (2010). They were also renovating the interior of the building at the same time. So as I was working on the darker spaces in the Mural, I went inside and took pictures of their work in progress to get a feeling for some of those structural elements for the space depicted in the Mural. This finalized the depth of field in the Mural and sheds more light in the space and gives a more fully detailed rendering of the space."

I didn't like the way the corner looked before between the 2 walls. This is trompe l'oeil after all. Now it's more like breakaway cinder block instead of the simple straight line I had before. You can't even see it from the front- it doesn't even read as part of the Mural, but when you go around the corner...And it was really fun to revist that pipe font I created for this wall.

Original notes:

Charlie Johnston: "This of course was my own design and execution. This one took me a long time- it sat dormant for a whole season. This building was the home of the Painters Union as well, of which I was a member. They wanted a Union guy to do it so they contracted me. They wanted it to represent the four trades: plumbers, pipe fitters, welders and sprinkler fitters."

"I used oil paints on the Plumber's mural; the same materials I was using to paint billboards. You just won't find murals painted like that anywhere; the materials are very expensive. And I could not have achieved this look with latex. I can approximate it, but the pigments base in oils are much more intense; they're not muted by whites whereas a latex base no matter how strong the colour is would always be somewhat muted."

"So I devised this space. I wanted to do this optics thing almost like a breakaway on the wall imagining what it would look like inside the building through the wall. So I chose that kind of vanishing point perspective, which is throughout the spatial architecture. The only thing I changed was I really played up the scale of the figures and worked from a ground level or roadside view looking up at them that really brought them forward into the composition. Each of them engaged in their respective vocations. There's lots of still life happening here. These pipe stands, electric arc welder, these cutting torch tanks they're all done from still life; I just brought the tools out and painted them. The old pipe wrench, sprinkler heads; this is a pipe class assembly that was sitting there nearby so I did it from still life."

"You know how people can be technical? I painted these sprinkler heads exactly the way they wanted me to and I had to change it because they turned out to be a kind of sprinkler at that was supposed to be pointing down instead of up so I had to switch them around on the pipes."

"This guy here had a cigarette in his mouth they asked me if he could butt out! This guy [top left corner] is me, a self-portrait of me working on the toilet (Photo 5). I used a little bit of projection here but they were projections of my own drawings."

With just one quick glance at this wall it's obvious that Johnston is well studied, masterful in fact, in the use of light and shading and in the knowledge of how light casts itself depending on the light source. Charlie: "It really helped that I was working around welders and tradesmen. This lighting of the welder was very familiar to me; I dodged it many times to avoid getting retinal burn. I really wanted to capture that and I was thinking what are the light sources going to be. The overall lighting effect of the room is darker."

"I made extensive use of the sign lettering techniques I was utilizing at the time in my billboard work. If you look of the detail on the decals, which they wanted on the helmets on the pipes, it's all done in brush lettering."

"The work on these 2 walls was staggered over two seasons. I started in the fall of 96 and worked until it snowed. The back wall (Photos 6,7 & 8) was simpler on a lower budget. I used the Trompe l'oeil technique, with men working and doing things to the wall, and the lettering is made out of pipes. For the lighting, I put a two o'clock shadow on the whole wall. At 2 o'clock, I leaned the ladder up against the wall and painted the shadow; next day, 2 o'clock, I put a scaffolding up against the wall and painted the shadow."

"There was an old guy, an original resident of the area, he would come and visit me all the time! There was a flock of ducks, he would feed them; he brought apples. He's been there for decades- the whole community has changed around him but he's still there! He would talk to me almost every day. And tradesmen would come there from all over the country to train here. Sometimes there would be some campers in the parking lot- I think they were the plumbers from Newfoundland. A few these guys suggested the butt crack and the potbelly for the guys on the back wall!"