Artist Paul Ygartua has been in Chemainus for the past week, restoring his famous mural, Native Heritage.
The painting, with its arresting images of First Nations faces, is considered the mural to see first by many visitors.
Ygartua, who celebrated his 69th birthday with a paintbrush in his hand last Monday, is delighted to be back for the restoration job. It’s his third trip to Chemainus.
“I guess it’s because it’s a little different,” he said of the mural’s popularity. “I didn’t do it to represent the history of Chemainus or to itemize different people, I chose subject matter that was, in a sense, dynamic, a little controversial at the time.
“It was a challenge to do it because I knew I wanted to do the faces really big. It was also the first time I’d ever painted a mural in my life. And that was in 1983. In those days I was fit enough to climb scaffolding,” he laughed. “Now we have a ladder lift, which is better and safer as well.”
Ygartua, who graduated from the Liverpool School of Art in England, said he enjoyed painting his subject matter.
“I thought it was important to have the right faces, it’s impressive. Then, I did another mural for Expo 86: the United Nations pavilion, and there I did the same thing. It was a painting of a large Haida chief in the middle.
“That was another thing that caused a lot of riot and controversy. I had people ask, ‘why do you want to put a native Indian in the middle?’ And I replied, ‘Well, can you think of anything that represents B.C. more than the natives?’ Then, they thought about it again,” he said.
Times have changed and Ygartua’s mural has become the iconic image of the entire Chemainus outdoor gallery. Few visitors leave the area without having experienced its magnetism.
“It was the entrance to Chemainus, too, and it was a stopper. You can see it from a hundred yards away driving down the road. The eyes are so penetrating,” he said.
“I practically had to paint it over,” Ygartua said of the restoration job.
“It was faded, it was white. I’ve had to put colour in all the faces, going into all the details again, repair some little damage in it. The totem poles? They’ve never looked this good,” he said.
“The first time I painted it, I took a week and there wasn’t much money so I didn’t spend a lifetime doing it. I did the faces exactly like this but I didn’t do a lot of detail on those poles. Now I’ve repaired them with much more detail and I think they look much stronger than before.”
The sun sucks the colour out of the mural, he said. To rejuvenate it, he’s been helped by photographs taken when the work was newer.
As he looked around downtown Chemainus, Ygartua said he was still surprised at how it has changed since he first saw it in 1983.
“Even when I came they were starting to put in a lot of new buildings. They started with four or five murals. Now they’ve got 40 murals or more. Can you imagine that? It’s great. Because when people are heading towards Victoria or Nanaimo, it’s a long drive. They want to stop and have something to eat. It’s a perfect little place.
“They’ve done a lot here but they have to make an effort to keep it up because if you start letting the murals slide, that’s the worst thing.”
The restoration job on Native Heritage is costing just under $18,000, according to the Festival of Murals Society.
Since he first painted his mural in Chemainus, Ygartua has gone on to create 15 more. His work now adorns walls in Canada, the United States and Europe.
Festival of Murals Society president Tom Andrews dropped by and complimented Ygartua on his work.
“It’s beautiful. It was so faded,” Andrews said.
Asked if this work was part of an overall revitalization plan for Chemainus, he said, “not specifically but the murals do need, as Paul says, to be repaired every 10 or 12 years because of exposure. And this one was due. And it’s the iconic mural. So, it does fit in with the restoration and revitalization that is going on in town right now.”
Much of the town is being spruced up.
“We re-did the park here. You can see all the groundwork that’s been done. We cleared all the bushes out from this garden that were really blocking people’s views. Some of those rhododendrons were getting tall.
“And in downtown, they are doing Waterwheel Park in the fall and hopefully Chemainus Road will get re-done between the theatre and River Road with a roundabout and boulevard put in to make a beautiful entrance into town. Our timing here fits right in,” Andrews said.