Chemainus is known beyond B.C. for its outdoor gallery of murals, but it was a different place when Karl Schutz arrived in 1952.
“When I first arrived, it was a sawmill town and you could just about buy anything you wanted, as long as it was for the logging and sawmill industry,” Schutz said.
“You could definitely not buy a brush or anything for arts. I think the word ‘arts’ was not in their vocabulary.”
Schutz, 83, was celebrated Wednesday for changing that. He was named honorary member emeritus by the Chemainus Festival of Murals Society in a ceremony hosted at the North Cowichan municipal council chambers. As the architect behind the Chemainus Mural Project, Schutz helped turn the declining sawmill town into a cultural tourism destination, society president Tom Andrews said.
“His concept was to use the arts as an economic driver for the community,” Andrews said. “It really put Chemainus on the map as a tourist destination and an arts and culture destination.”
Andrews said the community wanted to honour Schutz locally, since he has already received awards at the provincial and national levels.
“He’s been recognized internationally and received a lot of different awards, but I don’t think he’s received anything locally. So we thought it was time that he be recognized by the board of the society [that he founded] and the municipality.”
Schutz was born in Heidelberg, Germany, where he trained as a tool-and-dye maker. He moved to Canada, looking for adventure, and his work with railway companies carried him to Chemainus, where he and his wife, Betty, developed an industrial park and custom-furniture manufacturing plant.
Schutz didn’t think of bringing art to Chemainus until after visiting Romania with his wife in 1971.
“We saw the monasteries and the beautiful fresco paintings. They had visitors from all of the world and that’s where the idea originated,” Schutz said.
“I thought, my goodness, what an idea to have a tourism industry in Chemainus.”
He proposed the idea soon after returning. But the response was not positive.
“Everyone thought it was the dumbest idea they ever heard,” he said. “So I patiently waited for 10 years.”
Ten years later, sympathetic mayor Graham Bruce was in power. The town had received a provincial redevelopment grant and Bruce hired Schutz to carry out his arts economic stimulus project.
The first mural was painted in 1981, Schutz said, two years before the sawmill closed.
His plan proved successful. Today, Chemainus is painted with more than 40 murals, the vast majority of which depict scenes from the town’s history.
The idea spread internationally and Schutz said he has been hired by more than 70 communities, municipalities and chambers of commerce in 61 countries. He has travelled as far as New Zealand, Australia and Scotland as a consultant.
“They all adopted the idea and the formula that used murals as the economic development strategy,” Schutz said. “We created a tourism industry that’s very easy [to copy], now that its been done. It’s like the egg of Columbus: It’s easy when you know how.”
Schutz said he repeats a few tips to each client: Avoid politics, avoid religion and hire an experienced artist. Nearly each community has stuck with the Chemainus tradition of historical themes.
Schutz said the murals have personally affected him. “The murals, they have definitely changed my life. I’m not an artist; I’m an entrepreneur,” he said. “But from then on, I went into the arts and promoted the arts for all those years.”
Although he is retired, he still takes pride in seeing busloads of visitors arrive in Chemainus to visit the painted town.
“It’s a wonderful experience for people to visit and learn the history of Chemainus in such a colourful way.”