The Murals of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Mural of the Year
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285 Smith Street (RIP)   

"St. Regis Hotel est. 1911"
Establishing shot. From this perspective the "street" and streetcar tracks at the left side of the scene appear in a virtually perfect perspective, as if the scene was one flat surface.

Location: E side bet. Portage & Graham; South Face

Occupant: St. Regis Hotel

District: City Centre

Neighbourhood: South Portage

Artist(s): Charlie Johnston (C5 Artworks)

Year: 2003

Sponsors: Toromont Cat Lift, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, Take Pride Winnipeg!


Mural of the Year 2003   

Charlie Johnston: "It was a big project and seemed to go on forever. I had done big projects before but it's bigger than Athletes Wear by about 600 square feet; plus it's a not all one flat surface; that was one of the hard parts. The owner of the hotel, Gil Gauthier, approached me about changing the look of the hotel. He loved the Murals. We spent a lot of time and I went through about three different designs before we came to this one. He wanted something with historical nostalgic quality and something that depicted Winnipeg at the turn of the century."

Gil Gauthier: "I loved the Murals here in Winnipeg. I especially love the Mural at Main and Higgins-it is my favourite of them all. We started talking it up and we got a hold of Charlie and pulled some ideas together with him. We had entertained several different ideas: from the fur traders going up the Assiniboine River; something portraying buffalo and an early native settlement; or some other scene having to do with the legislative building. But we finally decided that we wanted to feature the hotel itself. Charlie came up with this one particular sketch that used this 3-D technique and just brought it all out and we just loved it."

Cheryl Collins (general manager, Regis Hotel): "This is 1911 and this is a depiction of the front of the building with Smith Street there. The other building is the Birks building, which is still there (the four-storey 38,000 building was built in 1900 as the first YMCA in Western Canada and was taken over by Birks Jewellers in 1912). Some of the cars Charlie did were from pictures of the hotel in the street we had given him."

When you stand back and look at it for from the perspective of the establishing shot (photo 1), it looks seamless: "I spent a lot of time thinking about that," says Johnston. "I've done those optical things before but never on this scale. I've been able to achieve those optical illusions for example in a small room, or where you're crossing over angled walls. There's a kind of optical illusion mind game going on where here's a play off the real versus the illusionistic; there's a group of the real windows blending in with a group of painted windows that project outward three-dimensionally. I was imagining the space of the street and the streetcar coming into the foreground on that other plane. And then there's the hard things like making the lines of the streetcar pass through (seamlessly). It's tricky and it only works when you're at a certain point. But as you walk around the Mural it changes. To me it's a crossover piece between a Mural and a sculpture. It definitely has sculptural qualities to it. Sculpture is about mass, manipulation of spatial elements, textures, gravity; those are a lot of the principal elements of a sculpture."

"Working on this Mural also had a theatrical quality, like creating a massive set: the backdrop the stage, creating an environment; then playing with things like the lighting, props and characters, and animating the scene and taking you back into time 90 years. I tried to include textures and qualities like the overhead wires and streetcar rails that would help give it the feeling of the time. Colour choices too can help evoke the mood and feeling about the era."

"The weather was always a problem. I got heatstroke three times in August working on that wall. That subroof made a nice working area but it was hot. The lower wall was brick but the large massive wall was stucco so we were working on different surfaces. The parking lot was busy too, with a lot of cars there. Because of this, I found that Sundays were the best time to work there. The cherry picker would not reach the center and left top of the wall, so I ended up doing that with scaffolding. So even that task of getting up there became a challenge. The height, the heat; it was very labour- intensive compared to some of the other projects."

"It got a lot of comments. People were yelling at me from the street, honking their horns as they drove by. The parking lot attendant told us that all people seemed to look; from the three-piece suit people to street people, to hotel guests because it seemed to appeal to everybody."

Included on the wall (up in the window) is a portrait of a tribal band counsellor, a frequent visitor to the hotel. The cowboy on the lower wall is a lawyer, Rob Ruddick from Edmonton, who is a frequent guest and friend of the hotel. One of the portraits in the window is of Victor Spence- another frequent guest of the hotel. A member of Victor's family came to the hotel and was momentarily fooled by the portrait, thinking it was really Victor in the 'window.'

Charlie: "It's about 95% done (as of the end of 2003). I want to work more in the lower section: the silhouetted figures in the streetcar, a little bit more refinement on the cars, and 4 or 5 small portraits which are already roughed in." Gil Gauthier also plans to have a portraiture of his father, Jerry as one of the figures.

The panel of independent judges for the selection of this Mural as the 2003 Mural of the Year were not at a loss for words of praise for this 5,600 square feet masterpiece:

Shirlee Blackman (Mural Judge):"It is a wonderful work of art. I was especially drawn to the way the artist used the one hotel wall by painting two walls of the old St. Regis building. The painted windows fit so well with the existing windows. I was amazed at how the parking lot wall was used to create the street car tracks and road and how it all blended so well with the hotel wall. It is a wonderful nostalgic scene. The artist has really given us an historic glimpse of Winnipeg in the early 1900's."

Bob Bruce (Mural Judge): "In my mind what set the winner apart from the rest was the huge scale of the project and it's great sense of 3D perspective. The historical theme of it was very nice as well and the artwork was outstanding and precisely done."

Susan Tremblay (Mural Judge): "This mural is outstanding!!! I work near this site and was able to observe its creation, however I did not want that to influence my decision. The caption of Your primary photograph of the mural on the website says it all. The mural fits into its surroundings yet stands on its own. It doesn't jar the senses but causes folks to stop and look at it more closely. It enhances its surroundings. It provides a sense of history."

Sharon Cory (Mural Judge): "It's beautifully executed, fits the site perfectly, is visually available and grabs my eye every time I go by. I'm not usually a big fan of the 'historical' montages.. I think too much emphasis is given to our history and not enough attention given to Winnipeg's status as a living, breathing entity. But this one is good enough to surpass that criticism. Charlie's murals are always beautifully drawn and composed."

Nurit Drory (Mural Judge): "The Johnstons have created an urban optical illusion that the others can't match, so I gave that mural first place. The hotel scene seems so real that from a block away, you actually think there is a streetcar there. Corners of the building have been "erased" by the painting, as real windows blend in with painted ones and a flat wall becomes three-dimensional by the angle. (The day I came to see it, there was an actual man in one of the windows and for a minute, I couldn't tell if he was real or not, because there was a life-like painted man in another window.) "