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Hughes created Malaspina mural in 1938

Depiction of historic scene in resort was exchanged for cash and lodging

The E.J. Hughes mural was created in 1938. Hughes was a young man beginning his artistic career. The Malaspina Hotel, built in 1927, was a swanky resort. Over the years its lustre faded; it housed a radio station, a bar, a seniors' residence, a temporary shelter for the homeless. And then it was empty.

In 1928, struggling to earn a living, Hughes painted the mural for room and board plus pocket money. He was joined by two friends from art school -- the trio dubbed themselves the Western Canadian Brotherhood. Orville Fisher and Paul Gorenson also painted artworks on the hotel's walls. However their murals, badly damaged, were not restored. Sections salvaged at the same time as the Hughes mural have disappeared. At least one Nanaimo resident suspects they became landfill.

The Hughes mural suffered a similar loss. A salvaged right-hand portion, originally showing two men standing in Malaspina Galleries, mysteriously vanished. Another portion of the mural on the left-hand side, portraying a sailing vessel, could not be saved.

The Hughes mural -- now measuring 2.7 by nine metres -- is painted in a bold, sculptural style reflecting the influence of Diego Rivera and other muralists of the time. Ian Thom, Vancouver Art Gallery curator and E.J. Hughes authority, said even though it precedes Hughes's mature period as an artist, the work is rare and important. Although he painted other murals -- including one for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco -- only this one survives.

For years after it was salvaged from the hotel, the future of the E.J. Hughes mural was in question. Simply put, no new home could be found. Over 12 years, art historian Cheryle Harrison drafted unsuccessful proposals suggesting new sites: Nanaimo's university, the theatre, the B.C. Ferries terminal.

While many Nanaimo residents were interested in the project -- especially the city's small but thriving arts community -- others were less so.

"A lot of people didn't think it was very important," Harrison said. These included a Nanaimo city councillor who dismissed the mural as "dated." Indeed, city council initially rejected the low-ball $200,000 fee to restore the work. Politicians changed their mind only after the arts community rallied, and experts such as Thom were enlisted to vouch for the mural's cultural value.

Jeffrey Patton, whose Nanaimo company Cinnabar Vista Productions is making a documentary on the mural's restoration, said the attitude of naysayers is "at best philistinism." Many who dismissed the Hughes mural as an uninteresting relic know little about art, he said. Some Nanaimo politicians view the restoration as just another budget demand, perhaps less important than mowing the city parks grass or constructing new civic buildings.

Nanaimo parks, recreation and culture director Richard Harding said the years it took to find a home for the murals reflects the challenge of finding a suitable venue for such a large piece. "Up to now," he said, "where do you put something like that?" As for Harrison's time spent on the project, Harding said he believes the city recognized her extra efforts and compensated accordingly.

What no one can argue is that the 12 years prior to Harrison's restoration did the mural no favours. Cut into concrete sections, the mural was stored in various warehouses. For a time, the parts were in a farm building open to the weather on the sides. Heat, freezing and moisture caused serious deterioration to the artwork, already in rough shape.

The acid-free protective tissue Harrison originally applied to preserve the mural became glued on. Paint continued to lift from the plaster. Meanwhile, various fork-lift efforts to move the mural segments from venue to venue further damaged the edges.

When Harrison was finally able to re-examine the mural properly in Errington 15 months ago, she was dismayed at the damage. She ended up having to invent new methods of saving it, for instance, devising unorthodox moistening treatments using syringes.

Micro-particles of paint were replaced with surgical tweezers, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Some missing sections were repainted, using Hughes's original drawings as a guide. Seventy years of grime was removed. Accumulated dust and moisture can -- and did -- lead to the growth of fungus-producing micro-climates and paint-gobbling bacteria.

To the lay-person, the E.J. Hughes restoration seems a nightmare -- perhaps the art-conservation equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. After all, there was not only the task at hand, but the political battles and sometimes non-existent pay.

Did Harrison ever feel like throwing up her hands?

"No," she said, laughing. "I'm crazy this way. I like the challenge ... Dedication is a mixture of passion and obsession, isn't that what they say?"

In speaking with friends and colleagues about Harrison, the adjective that always pops up is "passionate." Talk to Harrison for any length of time, and you realize her dedication to art restoration, a curious mix of art and science, is singular. She speaks of entering a meditative state while doing her restoring. She talks about getting into the artist's mind, of imagining not only the painter, but the lives of people -- perhaps long gone -- who once loved the artwork.

When I met Harrison this week, she was bunking on a friend's couch in Nanaimo. That way she can be closer to the mural, now installed in the convention centre. It's an intense time; she's sleeping just four or five hours nightly. She's still tweaking and touching -- in particular, fixing joints where the different segments are finally reunited.

Harrison, wearing a badly pilled work sweater, looked tired. But she seemed happy. "I think I've been privileged," she said.

Note: The public opening of the E.J. Hughes mural at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre is Friday, May 15. As well, there will be a show of more than 40 E.J. Hughes artworks at the Nanaimo Art Gallery and a historical exhibition at the Nanaimo Museum.

achamberlain@tc.canwest.com