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Canada : Monumental tribute to workers in resource industries may have to be moved

VANCOUVER -- Tucked away in a nondescript union building at Victoria and Triumph streets is one of Vancouver’s great historic murals: Fraser Wilson’s 85-foot-long depiction of B.C.’s resource industries, circa 1947.

The mural is done in a colourful social-realist style, like the famous Workers Public Administration murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower. The left side of the mural shows a variety of workers plying their trade around the province; the right shows Vancouver’s working waterfront in the 1940s.

Unfortunately, the Maritime Labour Centre, where the mural resides, has been hit by arson twice in recent years. The cleanup from the most recent fire a month ago is expected to take six to nine months, and the smell of smoke still lingers in the air.

Although the mural was unscathed in both fires, Mark Gordienko of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union thinks it’s time to put out “feelers” to find a new home for the artwork.

“People want to be sure that the mural will be looked after,” said Gordienko. “And I think it would be. I’d like to see it someplace along the waterfront, myself.

“It is limited where it could be. The (grain) terminals wouldn’t make any sense, but Canada Place or the Convention Centre would be great. It’s a snapshot of resource development in B.C. and the Vancouver waterfront.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, there were several significant murals in the city, including Jack Shadbolt murals at the United Services Centre and the Alcazar Hotel, and a Jock Macdonald mural at the Hotel Vancouver.

Both Shadbolt murals were lost when the buildings they were housed in were torn down, and the whereabouts of the Macdonald mural is a mystery. But Wilson’s mural was saved when it was painstakingly removed in the mid-1980s from the walls of the former Marine Workers and Boilermakers hall at 339 West Pender.

It was painted directly onto the gyproc walls of the hall’s second-storey auditorium in 1947. Wilson sketched the scene out in pencil, then spent a month painting it.

“It was done right on the wall in the Marine Workers Hall,” explains Sean Griffin, who was a family friend of Wilson. “That’s why it was so difficult to take it off. It had to all be sort of bound onto panels and the panels were carefully removed and preserved and then redone. It was an amazing conservation job, actually. It was done by an art conservator called Ferdinand Petrov.”

The left side of the mural depicts a miner driving a mine car full of ore, and shifts to a smelter belching smoke into the sky, then shows a logger birling (rolling) logs in a body of water.

The smelter may represent Trail in the Kootenays, but Wilson used artistic license to include snippets from across the province — to the right of the smelter is a lakeside farm that seems to represent the Okanagan.

The right side of the mural is easily recognizable as the Vancouver waterfront. There is a fishing boat navigating choppy waters, and a harbour scene where a welder works in front of several ships. In the background is a silhouette of the Vancouver waterfront in the 1940s, when the art deco Marine Building was the tallest structure in the city.

In the middle of the mural are a couple of fir trees that Wilson painted as a “transition scene” when the mural was re-installed at the Maritime Centre. The mural was originally almost 100 feet long — it was reduced by about 15 feet to make it fit into the new space.

“They had taken two big sections out of it to make it fit the wall in the Maritime Centre,” said Griffin.

“He actually painted transition scenes, new scenes to fit that, which most people would never know were there, (because) they were done so well. He came back in and spent several months overseeing the re-instalment of the mural.”

Incredibly, Wilson was 83 years old when he painted the new sections. Born on Canada Day, 1905, he was one of Vancouver’s top illustrators and cartoonists in the 1930s and ’40s, working for the left-leaning newspaper The Commonwealth and The Vancouver Sun.

Wilson was the very first Vancouver member of the Newspaper Guild, and was active in union causes. But his politics didn’t always sit well with The Sun’s management, which fired him after he gave a fiery speech denouncing the rival Province newspaper during a bitter newspaper strike in 1946.

Blacklisted from the newspaper industry, he formed his own art and advertising firm, Commonwealth Displays, to do “signs and banners and things” for the union movement.

“He sort of had the contract, so to speak, for virtually all of the left/progressive organizations around the city,” said Griffin. “So he did a lot of stuff for the Marine Workers, the Longshoremen, the Fishermen and so on.”

It isn’t clear whether Wilson did any other murals, but another one of Wilson’s paintings, Organization, is on display at the Vancouver Museum and Archives. It shows a union organizer in 1944, speaking to the workers at a local shipyard from a small boat.

Wilson was a Burnaby councillor in the 1960s, and founded the Burnaby Historical Society. He passed away in 1992, at the age of 87.

The building at 339 West Pender where the mural was originally installed was destroyed by a fire in 2003. The historic structure was officially called the Victory Block, and in later years the Marine Workers hall was known as the Pender Ballroom or Pender Auditorium. In the 1960s, it was the original home of the Afterthought, Vancouver’s first psychedelic club. The Grateful Dead played their first Vancouver show there in 1966.

The mural is no immediate danger at the Maritime Labour Centre, but there has been some discussion about selling the building, which is co-owned by two ILWU locals (one for seamen, one for longshoremen) and the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Union. If the building is sold, the mural would likely have to be moved.

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