34 Higgins Avenue
"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)
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.
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
"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
"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!"