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.