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Painstaking restoration of a long-lost E.J. Hughes mural

Art conservator Cheryle Harrison brings neglected work back to life

Today valued at $3-million-plus, a mural created by one Canada's most beloved artists was lost for decades behind faux-wood panelling in a derelict Nanaimo hotel.

The years were cruel. Six-inch nails were pounded into the forgotten artwork. A boiler exploded beside it, searing off paint. The mural -- oil on plaster on mortar -- was a crumbling, fungus-encrusted, unholy mess.

It was painted by the late E.J. Hughes. His most famous painting, Fishboats, Rivers Inlet (1946) fetched $920,000 in 2004 -- a record for a living Canadian artist. The Hughes mural -- discovered in 1996 by construction workers during the demolition of the Malaspina Hotel -- portrays Capt. Alexandro Malaspina. Flanked by Italian and Spanish seamen, the 18th-century explorer sketches the sandstone formations known today as Malaspina Galleries on Gabriola Island.

The Hughes mural, now expertly restored to its former glory, will be unveiled next weekend at its new home at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre. Some in this city -- built on lumber, coal and fishing -- have been slow to embrace the project. Yet there has been a turnaround, with the City of Nanaimo even officially declaring next week to be E.J. Hughes Week.

The heroine of this story is Cheryle Harrison. The Vancouver art conservator spent 15 months on her hands and knees in an Errington warehouse, painstakingly restoring the mural. Some areas were reassembled flake by tiny flake. The mural was so profoundly damaged, the paint peeling so badly, Harrison was compelled to invent new methods of restoration.

Visiting Victoria on a rare half-day off, Harrison recalled occasionally dodging rats during the mural's removal in 1996 from the hotel. To better view the painting, she clambered up the side of a bathroom stall and peered though a hole in the ceiling.

"I could see Captain Malaspina's head with a pipe going through his hat," Harrison said.

Back then, as cranes hoisted the 7,300 kilograms of concrete mural panels though the hotel's roof, Harrison had no idea that this would become the challenge of a lifetime. For her, the restoration has been all-consuming. For more than a year she has worked seven days a week, sometimes putting in 15-hour days. She slept only five or six hours a night. Over 450 days she wore out many sets of knee-pads, which -- while providing some protection -- didn't stop the bursa sacs in her knees from bursting.

During her solitary quest, Harrison would glance at a photo of the late E.J. Hughes given pride of place in her workspace. The artist died in 2007, aged 93. Fortunately, he learned of his mural's rediscovery and restoration before passing away.

"I hope he would have been happy," said Harrison, who was able to meet the reclusive artist. "I hope he would have been pleased."

So fervent is her commitment to the E.J. Hughes mural, Harrison has donated 2,800 hours of the 4,800 hours it has taken to restore it. The City of Nanaimo did provide a $200,000 grant for the restoration project, but balked at forking out more when the process proved more expensive than originally budgeted. Now owned by Nanaimo Community Archives, the artwork is technically under the city's guardianship.

Harrison talks quickly -- indeed, almost non-stop -- when discussing the Hughes mural. Her passion for this painting and for art restoration is apparent. She repeatedly refers to herself as the mural's "protectoress." In Nanaimo, they call her the Mural Lady.

While money is obviously not her motivator, Harrison did express concern about her post-Hughes financial state. "For the costs I've had to cover," she said, "I'll be working for the next 10 years."

There has been personal sacrifice, as well. Harrison -- a single Californian who moved to Canada 20 years ago -- put her professional and personal life in Vancouver on hold for a year and a half. Her flower garden withered and died. While restoring the mural in Errington, she rented a cottage next door, sometimes strapping on snowshoes in the winter to trek to work.

Her willingness to work for free is especially remarkable, seeing as she's one of Canada's top conservators -- a small, elite group. Harrison has restored many works by Emily Carr and Hughes, including the record-setting Fishboats, Rivers Inlet. She restored Carr's Arbutus Tree, uncovering the double-sided painting's hidden portrait on the back. She's also the caretaker of the George Southwell murals (now covered) at the B.C. legislature.

"She is a very well-regarded conservator in Canada," said Patricia Blakney Huntsman, director of Vancouver's Diane Ferris Gallery. Without Harrison's dedication and tenacity, said Huntsman, the rescue of the Hughes mural "could not have been done."