It seems like every town and hamlet in Alberta, Canada and North America has developed a mural program as a means of trying to attract tourists off the major highway and into town where they might spend a few bucks.
In addition to attracting tourist, these mural programs can be the catalyst for fostering community pride in both the past and the present.
In my opinion, fostering community pride is the most important aspect of sustaining community prosperity - be is a small town or a big city.
Without civic pride, a town or city is destined to decline
Murals to the rescue
The first town I remember to created a comprehensive curated mural program in Canada was Chemainus, BC back in 1981. The town’s lumber mill had closed and the town leaders looked to tourism to save the town. It has been a huge success. Other towns followed - High River, Alberta just south of Calgary, Windsor, Nova Scotia and Huntsville, Ontario. The later has 90 murals celebrating the work of the Canada’s Group of Seven (note to self, go to Huntsville next time you are in Ontario). Even I, as an artist, got on the bandwagon, initiating the ill-fated Street Art For Gleichen project while living in Gleichen, Alberta back in 1983.
Several years ago, I heard Lacombe (100 km south of Edmonton on the QEII highway) had a great mural program and made a mental note to check them out when I was in the neighbourhood. That is exactly what happened on a trip to Edmonton this past January.
More than just murals
Lacombe (population: 13,000) has a lovely historic downtown main street with lots of early 20th century buildings. Who knew they have six designated Provincial historic buildings and the most intact concentration of Edwardian buildings in the province?
Lacombe has a rich history. It is named after Father Albert Lacombe (1827 – 1916), a Roman Catholic Oblate missionary who is best known for brokering peace between the Cree and Blackfoot to allow the Canadian Pacific Railway to build Canada’s transcontinental railway. It is where Governor General Roland Michener (1967 to 1974) was born. In 1907, the federal government set up the Lacombe Experimental Farm, establishing the town as the agricultural hub for the region. And, it is home to Burma University, formerly the Seventh-day Adventist Canadian University College campus which can be traced back to 1909.
There are some fun shops including a mid-century bowling alley that look like a hoot. And they have not one, not two, but three museums – Flatiron Museum, Michener House Museum and Blacksmith Shop Museum.
Note to self: Next time you are in Lacombe area, give yourself more time so you can check out the Burman University campus and the museums.
Link: Burman University
But I digress…
Mural Capital of Alberta
I was surprised to discover that most of the murals are done by one guy – Tim Giles. Giles, a self-taught artist, who comes from a family of artists, started creating murals in 2004 as part of Lacombe’s effort to win the Canada-wide “Communities in Bloom” contest. He didn’t know if his first mural would be temporary or permanent, however they were well received and he was asked to do more.
“More” meant he would eventually do 20+ murals – all in the back alleys of downtown Lacombe and all depicting the life of early area pioneers (from 1890 to 1910). In 2009, he completed another series of murals depicting life in the 1930s. Using archival photos of local street scenes, his painterly realism style of painting transformed Lacombe’s downtown alleys into a lovely, walk back in time.
I was surprised the murals were in such great shape given some are 15 years old. After some digging I learned why. In 2015, St. Albert, Alberta muralist Robert Murray was hired to restore the murals. There are also new murals being added. Local sign painter turned artist, John Ellenberger (known as Little John) recently created a mural titled Clydesdale Parade based the Clydesdales were the common draft horse used for field work at the Lacombe Research Station.
What I most loved about Lacombe’s mural program is that it gives visitors an immediate sense of the community’s pride not only in its history, but in its present and future. Rather than let their downtown decline as many smaller rural towns have done, they have kept theirs alive.
They are so proud of their mural they have proclaimed themselves, “The Mural Capital of Alberta.” And, who is going to argue with them?
Lacombe is great example of the importance of “civic pride.” If people are proud of where they live they will take ownership in it. They will ensure it’s streets, alleys and buildings are clean, safe and in good repair, which in turn will make the community an attractive place to live, work and play for themselves, as well as potential newcomers.
If you ever find yourself in the Lacombe area, check out the murals and experience the community pride for yourself. Even if you have only 30 minutes.