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article imageThe ‘magic’ of Chemainus: From sawmill-town to mural-town Special

By Igor I. Solar     Feb 1, 2012 in Entertainment
Victoria - Chemainus, a small community in British Columbia, has transformed in three decades from a struggling single-industry town into a fascinating tourist destination with dozens of outdoor murals and sculptures showing the history of the North Cowichan Valley.
When the Chemainus sawmill announced its closure in 1983, after 120 years of operation, about 700 persons in the town of 4,000 people lost their jobs. The lumber company had been the main economic activity in the small town in the North Cowichan Valley since 1858 and, without the jobs provided by the mill, Chemainiacs (residents of Chemainus) anticipated difficult times. Some residents sold their homes and prepared to leave the village. Chemainus could soon become a ghost town.
Chemainus Mural # 2 (left panel)   The Thirty-three Metre Collage   F. Lewis  N. Lagana & P. Marcano...
Chemainus Mural # 2 (left panel), "The Thirty-three Metre Collage", F. Lewis, N. Lagana & P. Marcano, 1982.
Chemainus Mural # 2 (center panel)   The Thirty-three Metre Collage   F. Lewis  N. Lagana & P. Marca...
Chemainus Mural # 2 (center panel), "The Thirty-three Metre Collage", F. Lewis, N. Lagana & P. Marcano, 1982.
Chemainus Mural # 2 (right panel)   The Thirty-three Metre Collage   F. Lewis  N. Lagana & P. Marcan...
Chemainus Mural # 2 (right panel), "The Thirty-three Metre Collage", F. Lewis, N. Lagana & P. Marcano, 1982.
Chemainus Mural # 4   The Hong Hing Waterfront Store   Paul Marcano  1982.
Chemainus Mural # 4, "The Hong Hing Waterfront Store", Paul Marcano, 1982.
A year earlier the community had received funding to improve the tired look of the old streets of Chemainus and the loss of the timber company encouraged the authorities of the town and its inhabitants to seek alternatives and persevere in the task of getting their town becoming a tourist destination. The creation of murals showing the history of the town, particularly linked to the forest industry and wood products, appeared as an initiative that the municipal authorities of North Cowichan and Chemainus residents initially considered with some hesitation, but later adopted with great enthusiasm. In 1982 the Festival of Murals Society was created. Its aim was to oversee the development of a major project of works of art on the walls of the town, promote coordinated installation of new murals and sculptures, and preserve the historical and cultural legacy of the initiative in progress.
Chemainus Mural # 8 (right panel)   Chemainus 1891  David Maclagan  1983.
Chemainus Mural # 8 (right panel), "Chemainus 1891" David Maclagan, 1983.
Chemainus Mural # 11   Temporary Homes   David White  1983.
Chemainus Mural # 11, "Temporary Homes", David White, 1983.
Chemainus Mural # 10   Company Store   Dan Sawatzky  1983.
Chemainus Mural # 10, "Company Store", Dan Sawatzky, 1983.
Chemainus Mural # 12   Native Heritage   Paul Ygartua  1983.
Chemainus Mural # 12, "Native Heritage", Paul Ygartua, 1983.
The process began in 1982 with five murals. They were the works of artists Frank Lewis, Nancy Lagana, Paul Marcano, all of British Columbia, and Thomas Robertson from Edinburg, Scotland. Since then, the collection has grown to 40 murals. Some of them are of medium size, like the one showing a portrait of "Billy Thomas" (2.1 x 2.4 meters, by Sandy Clark, 1984). Many are vast landscapes of gigantic dimensions, such as "Waiting for the Whistle" painted by Robert Dafford, Lafayette, LA, USA (36.58 x 3.05 meters), or are collages of various scenes in sequence, as the "Thirty-three Metre Collage" by Lewis, Lagana and Marcano (33 x 4.2 meters).
Chemainus Mural # 13   Billy Thomas   Sandy Clark  1984.
Chemainus Mural # 13, "Billy Thomas", Sandy Clark, 1984.
Chemainus Mural # 16   1884 Chinese Bull Gang   Ernest Marza  1984.
Chemainus Mural # 16, "1884 Chinese Bull Gang", Ernest Marza, 1984.
Chemainus Mural # 20 (left panel)   World in Motion   Alan Wylie  1986.
Chemainus Mural # 20 (left panel), "World in Motion", Alan Wylie, 1986.
Chemainus Mural # 19   Mill Street in 1948   Mike Svob  1986.
Chemainus Mural # 19, "Mill Street in 1948", Mike Svob, 1986.
All murals and characters show important aspects of the history of Chemainus and the Cowichan Valley. Several of them are directly inspired by motives related to the timber industry in the region, but also celebrating native heritage, the Japanese legacy, maritime culture or the life of early settlers. In addition to the murals, the village has several sculptures including wood-carving "Donkey Spool", (E. Schultes, 1983), "In search of the snipes" and "Charlie Abbot - The Hermit" (G. Spicer, 1986) and "Three Generations" by Sandy Clark (1985), among others.
Chemainus Mural # 23   Chemainus Hospital   Doug Driediger  1988.
Chemainus Mural # 23, "Chemainus Hospital", Doug Driediger, 1988.
Chemainus Mural # 22 (right panel)   Leonora Mines at Mt. Sicker   Peter Bresnen  1988 (1991).
Chemainus Mural # 22 (right panel), "Leonora Mines at Mt. Sicker", Peter Bresnen, 1988 (1991).
Chemainus Mural # 26 (center panel)   Chemainus - The War Years - Circa 1915   Susan Tooke Chichton ...
Chemainus Mural # 26 (center panel), "Chemainus - The War Years - Circa 1915", Susan Tooke Chichton, 1989.
Chemainus Mural # 28   No. 3 Climax Engine   Dan Sawatzky  1991.
Chemainus Mural # 28, "No. 3 Climax Engine", Dan Sawatzky, 1991.
The abundance of works of art in Chemainus attracts thousands of visitors every year and the townsfolk have adapted well to the high international tourist demand. They even established the Chemainus Monetary Foundation (CMF) and created their own official currency, the CH$ (the “Chemainus dollar”), a local legal tender pegged to the value of the Canadian dollar. The CMF confidently claims that the local currency “will have global economic impact” and “is nearly impossible to counterfeit”.
Chemainus Mural # 34   Letters from the Front   David Goatley  2002.
Chemainus Mural # 34, "Letters from the Front", David Goatley, 2002.
Chemainus Mural # 30.  The Lone Scout   Stanley Hiromichi Taniwa 1991.
Chemainus Mural # 30. "The Lone Scout", Stanley Hiromichi Taniwa,1991.
As a busy tourist destination, Chemainus boasts hotels and B&Bs, numerous cafes, restaurants, charming gift and souvenir shops, art galleries, antique stores, parks and beaches, and an interesting coastal area where you can see the operations of the sawmill whose threat of closure triggered the “mural fever”. The mill closed in 1983 but MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. (now Weyerhaeuser) reopened it in 1985 with a new design and significant technological advances which has allowed the company to compete effectively with major global players in the lumber industry, with Japan as its main customer.
Chemainus Mural # 20 (right panel).  World in Motion   Alan Wylie  1986.
Chemainus Mural # 20 (right panel). "World in Motion", Alan Wylie, 1986.
Chemainus Mural # 40. The Volunteers;  Ribbon Cutting Chemainus Style   Dan Sawatzky  2007.
Chemainus Mural # 40. The Volunteers; "Ribbon Cutting Chemainus Style", Dan Sawatzky, 2007.
During September 10-15, 2012, the Chemainus community will host the 8th World Mural Conference to review, along with visitors from other outdoor art gallery cities around the world, the latest mural techniques and the best ways to promote economic development through historic, arts, cultural, heritage and sports tourism.
Chemainus is located on Vancouver Island, 77 kilometres north of Victoria, the British Columbia capital, and about 35 km south of Nanaimo. From the BC mainland is possible to travel on BC Ferries to Nanaimo from Horseshoe Bay or to Victoria from Tsawwassen. Whether you travel from Nanaimo or from Victoria, the drive to Chemainus is particularly scenic, embellished with magnificent old-growth forests, seascapes and mountain views. And the pretty town, its history, the huge colourful murals, the gracious sculptures and the exquisite gift shops, at the end of the road are the cherry on the cake.
More about Chemainus, British columbia, Mural art, outdoor art gallery, Cowichan Valley
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