Swift Cur­rent’s first cen­tury im­mor­tal­ized in mu­ral project


A cel­e­bra­tion of Swift Cur­rent’s first 100 years is proudly on dis­play in the Frank Rem­pel Cen­ten­nial Plaza, with 10 mu­rals proudly de­pict­ing high­light events from the City’s first 10 decades.

A for­mal un­veil­ing with the project sculp­tor was held this past Wed­nes­day, sig­nalling the cul­mi­na­tion of a three-year process by Medicine Hat artist James Mar­shall to bring the project to re­al­ity. The works were com­mis­sioned as a Cen­ten­nial Le­gacy Project by the for­mer City Coun­cil in 2015.

The project con­sists of 10 brick mu­rals com­mem­o­rat­ing a per­son or event show­cas­ing the first 10 decades in Swift Cur­rent’s first 100 years.

Mar­shall has par­tic­i­pated in a se­ries of historic preser­va­tion projects over the years, so help­ing com­mem­o­rate Swift Cur­rent rich his­tory was an ideal fit.

“These multi (mu­rals) ones I think were pretty de­light­ful to work on. Pretty in­ter­est­ing his­tory here. I think it was one of my sort of bet­ter projects,” Mar­shall said this past week.

“I’m a real stu­dent of his­tory. I like do­ing his­tory project. I find it real in­ter­est­ing go­ing through the archives and see­ing what a com­mu­nity’s all about. Lots of in­ter­est­ing stuff that didn’t make it onto the mu­rals.”

Mar­shall was pro­vided with be­tween 300 and 400 his­tor­i­cal images, and he worked with a com­mit­tee to fi­nal­ize the themes for each decade. How­ever, as the artist, he had fi­nal say on the fin­ished prod­uct.

“I know what works well with the images and the ma­te­rial I work with. So I have to take pretty much con­trol.”

The 79-year-old Medicine Hat artist has pro­duced an es­ti­mated 300 brick mu­rals which are fea­tured across South­ern Al­berta, in var­i­ous places through­out Canada, and as far away as Eng­land.

“It’s a pretty par­tic­u­lar sub­ject,” he said of the Swift Cur­rent mu­ral project. “You want big images, and you’re work­ing with mo­tor joints…so not ev­ery­thing works well well.”

“But I think it was a dream project for me.”

Mar­shall notes that he did one piece over again, but oth­er­wise the project went smoothly.

In re­flect­ing on the 10 mu­ral panels, Mar­shall said he is most proud of recre­at­ing the story of Chief Pi­apot, who at­tempted to stop con­struc­tion of the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­road to de­ter the ad­vance­ment of set­tlers to the West.

“I like num­ber one ac­tu­ally. Pi­apot, try­ing to stop the train go­ing across Canada be­cause he thought it was go­ing to change their way of life, and it cer­tainly did. I like them all re­ally.”

He also took the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain the ex­haus­tive steps taken to com­plete each mu­ral.

“It starts with a con­cept, re­search, de­sign, draw­ings to scale, set­ting bricks on a large easel. Scrub­bing the im­age onto the face of the brick in just scratchy lines to lay it out, then work­ing with chis­els and tools that re­move the clay.”

“The sculp­ture process is prob­a­bly the tough­est part of it and the long­est term. You’re carv­ing away the clay to cre­ate the images in re­lief.”

“When they’re all carved, you colour them with ce­ramic glazes. And then you take it all apart, brick by brick, put them into a dry­ing rack where they stay for a month to get to­tally dry. Then they get loaded into a kiln, brick by brick…three days to fire, four days to cool the kiln down enough to open it and han­dle the units.”

The fi­nal stages in­volve boxing and se­curely pack­ag­ing the mu­ral for trans­porta­tion, and then work­ing with a brick layer to in­stall the project.

Mar­shall ex­plained this com­mis­sioned work might be among his fi­nal large-scale projects be­cause of the ex­ten­sive work that goes into his art. There was truly a brick by brick process to make these mu­rals, and he re­called a num­ber of days which be­gan at 5 a.m. and went as late as 10 p.m. Be­cause he works with bricks that are un­fired, it is a real race to get them carved be­fore they get too dry, to keep from crack­ing and other prob­lems.

“You al­ways leave part of your­self when you work as dili­gently as you have to with these things. Ev­ery one is well doc­u­mented by me, and I’m go­ing to be leav­ing a lot of that doc­u­men­ta­tion at the Mu­seum.”

“When you do some­thing you love to do, you never work again. So it’s a labour of love.”

Swift Cur­rent Mu­seum Cu­ra­tor Lloyd Be­g­ley said it is im­por­tant to have a project like this to help share Swift Cur­rent’s rich and di­verse his­tory.

“It’s huge. It’s a cel­e­bra­tion of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re go­ing. You have to dis­play this kinds of mon­u­ments to those liv­ing in our com­mu­nity, what­ever age they may be,” Be­g­ley said. “Bring your grand­chil­dren down to Cen­ten­nial Plaza on the week­end and talk to them about who these peo­ple are and why they’re im­por­tant to our com­mu­nity.”

A de­scrip­tion of each panel is dis­played on the back of the mu­rals to ex­plain their sig­nif­i­cance.

“It just be­came a process of what sto­ries were im­por­tant, what did they rep­re­sent, and how are they im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity. We left it up to the artist to de­cide which story he thought was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of each of the decades, and we went from there,” Be­g­ley noted.

“Every­one in the com­mu­nity I think can iden­tify with all the sto­ries that we’re try­ing to tell.”

“They’re all in­de­pen­dent, in­ter­est­ing lit­tle sto­ries of peo­ple from our com­mu­nity, and places and events that mean a lot to all of us, and will con­tinue to do so for as long as they stand.”

Swift Cur­rent’s Chief Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fi­cer Tim Mar­cus said the le­gacy project is a welcome cel­e­bra­tion of the city’s Cen­ten­nial year.

“We cer­tainly no­tice it gen­er­ates a lot of traf­fic. Ev­ery day we see lots of peo­ple wan­der­ing among the mon­u­ments, look­ing at them, and read­ing the plaques on the back.”

He added the fi­nal vi­sion for the Frank Rem­pel Cen­ten­nial Plaza in­cludes some trees for shade, adding a num­ber of benches, and a brick walk­way to re­place the ex­ist­ing as­phalt.


Artist James Mar­shall was on hand at the Frank Rem­pel Cen­ten­nial Plaza for the un­veil­ing of the mu­ral panels which cel­e­brate Swift Cur­rent’s first 100 years.

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