Mexico City would not be the same place without the powerful political murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Montreal wouldn’t be the same without the colour and playfulness of its street art and murals.
After visits to Mexico City in 2015 and Montreal in 2016, I have developed a much better appreciation for how murals and street art is important in capturing and expressing a city’s past and present, as well as an important tool in creating a unique sense of place.
Link: Diego Rivera Murals
Link: Montreal Murals
While Calgary is not known for its murals and street art, I have always admired the work of Doug Driediger. Many of Calgary old-timers will remember the fun Mona Lisa portrait on the side of the Metrographics building at 1114 - 12th Ave S.W. that included a fun “speech bubble,” so Mona could comment about current affairs in Calgary.
When the building beside their office was torn down in the early ‘90s it left a blank wall facing the one-way traffic on 12th Avenue SW. Driediger and his colleagues immediately thought they needed to do something to the wall that would be fun, unique and help market their start-up graphics business.
Driediger was was inspired by changeable sign on a Dry Cleaners building on Elbow Drive at 50th Ave SW which he use to drive by everyday from his home in the southwest to his Beltline (then Connaught) office. As he thought about options for his wall, he found himself intrigued by the how the Dry Cleaner’s little sign with different information every few days lingered in his mind. He soon realized what he wanted was not something big and showy, but something that created dialogue with people.
Mona became a cult figure with her comments about the everyday life of staff as well as current affairs in Calgary. One of the more memorable comments was “Mona is a grandma” after a Metrographics staff member had a baby. Soon strangers were dropping off gifts for the baby, including one woman who made a hand knit sweater. Another time it read, “It’s been a bad week, all gifts of chocolate welcomed!” They were quickly bombarded with chocolates.
When Preston Manning was the leader of the Reform Party he did a flip flop on an issue so Mona’s speech bubble said “Presto Chango. ” A few days later a guy shows up at the front desk saying he wanted to talk to the guy responsible for Mona. When Doug comes to the front desk, he realizes it is Manning and it turns out he wants to shake Doug’s hand and tell him “That’s Funny!”
Mona disappeared when the Metrographics building was torn down for the construction of Qualex-Landmark's first three Calgary condos – Stella, Nova and Luna – in 2005.
But Doug did not disappear - by that time he was a well-established mural painter in Calgary and beyond.
In 1995, he did the “Giving Wings To The Dream” on the side of the former CUPS (Calgary Urban Projects Society) building on 7th Ave SW across from the Convention Centre LRT Station that still stands today (and has never been refreshed). It depicts a large human hand reaching up (a hand-up, not a hand-out) to a white dove that is flying off into the sky. What a better metaphor for a CUPS, a non profit society that reaches out to Calgarians whose lives are in turmoil to help them turn their lives around.
It also speaks to Calgary’s strong caring society.
It could also be a metaphor for all of the people who have moved to Calgary over the past 100 years with the dream of working hard and being rewarded with a better life – be that the 1910s or the 2010s.
In 1997, Driediger painted a huge 48 by 150 foot mural on the backside of the downtown Petroleum Club visible from the busy 6th Avenue SW. At the time, Reuters reported it as the largest mural in Canada, and perhaps one of the largest in North America. It commemorates the impact of the oil and gas industry on the Alberta with the rig crew at Leduc #1, the original wooden derrick from Turner Valley find, a vintage water truck, and on the left, a farming/ranching scene with a landowner surveying his property, some cattle and pump-jacks all living in harmony.
It testifies the vital role oil and gas and agriculture have had and continue to have in the evolution of Alberta as a place for humans to thrive.
“The Promise” is an 18-foot by 60-foot mural created in 1998 on the south wall of the Alex Ferguson School in Killarney where his two daughters went to school. Facing the playground it has nine hands reaching out from the ground to touch or catch a circular object – a ball? a distant planet? perhaps Earth?
The mural looms over the children as they play at recess, lunch or after school, one can only wonder what impact it has had on the minds of thousands or young children over the years?
While you won’t find any new Driediger murals in Calgary (which is a shame) that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. In fact he was so busy I had to wait three months to meet with him to discuss his new work.
He reminded me that since his early murals he has created three murals in High River, two in Stoney Plain and a centennial mural for Sylvan Lake – to name a few. He told me about the indoor mural ordeal at the Days Inn in downtown Lethbridge where he had to paint on sloping walls and ceiling around a pool using a cherry picker (a hydraulic crane with a railed platform that can be raised and lowered so people can work at variable heights). He laughed when I said it was his “Sistine Chapel.”
He has also been very active working with Parks Canada creating interpretive murals at various locations that help visitors understand and visualize the uniqueness of the location.
It is a perfect synergy of his graphic design and fine art skills. He has worked in remote locations like Kwisitis Visitor Centre in the heart of Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island to Sulphur Mountain Walk in Banff National Park
He is currently working with Parks Canada and Science World Vancouver to create educational murals about how the introduction of “wildlife corridors” have decreased wildlife deaths by 80% or how condo owners can create pollinator gardens to help bees thrive.
He finds this work both challenging and satisfying.
This spring he will complete a project working with the members of Calgary’s Crossroads community (the name for three north east communities Mayland Heights, Belfast and Vista Heights) to transform 11 utility boxes into works of art. Working with the community and the City of Calgary’s Biologist the theme of “Birds of Calgary” was chosen.
The community got to vote on their favourite Calgary birds (Robin was #1) and some of the community even got to help with the painting.
Test of Time?
Driediger utilizes both his graphic and fine art skills, as well as his business partner John Twaddle’s technology skills to create art that blurs the boundaries between graphic, fine and public art.
He likes the fact his art can be educational, entertaining and enlightening all at the same time.
I like that all of Driediger’s large scale murals are uplifting, perhaps that is why the public loves them as much today as when they were done 20 years ago. The test for any work of art is how it stands the “test of time.” Driediger’s work passes with flying colours.
When asked, “if there was a site in Calgary he would like to create a major new mural?” he responded that one of the Crossroads community members thought he should create a mural on the Firestone Tower at the corner of Barlow Trail and Memorial Drive.
He smirked and said, “I have never done a circular mural.” I smirked and said, “Never say never!”