Story of Tree of Life in The Warm Land, The Mural in the Town Square


More than a decade ago Duncan City Council designed the city square beside the city hall. This July is the first anniversary of the completion of the ceramic mural decorating the bandstand. The square is truly at the heart of our town, a setting for the vibrant farmer’s market, live music nights during the 39 Days of Summer, the Duncan Summer Festival, and a meeting place for many other public events. The city square fosters our sense of place and community life.

Years ago I dream’t of making a vibrant mural to cover the grey concrete bandstand. In the spring of 2013 the city council had a pool of funds contributed from city developments that were earmarked for public art in Duncan, so they put out their first call for art proposals. Thirteen artists submitted good ideas.

A jury was assembled and this mural proposal was selected. Just prior to submitting this mural proposal I met the artist Maynard Johnny Jr.. He agreed to collaborate on the design, combining imagery from his Coast Salish tradition and my own background to honour and welcome members of the whole community. The theme we chose was “Life in the Warmland”, including the salmon, the Cowichan River and Bay, and the people who live here.

The salmon has been the main food source of the Coast Salish and much appreciated by everyone in the valley. It is respected for its resilience and rejuvenation. You can see these images if you go to the town square and look.

Begin at the bottom step. Pictured there are salmon eggs in water. On the next step you will find the adult salmon, followed on the top step by the people of the valley, raising their hands in the traditional gesture of “huy chq’u,” meaning thank you. At the back of the stage is a large mural representing Cowichan Bay warmed by a huge warm sun, the rays of light spreading over the valley. The tree of life sits in the center, surrounded by river, ocean, bullrushes and local mountains. On the left is the Thunderbird, a giant supernatural spirit bird that is respected for its ability to create thunder with the clap of its wings and lightning with the blink of its eyes. On the right panel sits the frog, communicator between man and the spirit world.

During the different stages of making the 350 square foot mural over twenty volunteers helped. We needed the expert help of Gem Chang Kue, a ceramic artist from Nanaimo, to silk screen the coast salish designs onto the tile risers. I hand painted all the areas not silk screened. This could only be done once and had to be done correctly, each piece needing to perfectly fit with it’s neighbouring pieces. Leanne Hodges was among those who helped with firing the tiles. This took many days! After the risers were complete we began work on the backstage mural. Maynard and I worked out the design on three canvasses, one for each plane of the backstage building we planned to cover in tile.

Our final design was enlarged by Grant Kernan of AK Photos to perfectly enlarge the original. All these were traced out and used as templates. We then went through the process of shaping, carving, cutting, drying, glazing and firing the hundreds of pieces of clay for the shaped elements of the mural. All these were pieced together on a supporting structure. Next, tiles were cut, painted and pieced around the tree, sun, raven, and bullrushes.

Bev Russel, Tin Yan and Antoine Tsan von Baich, Anne Francoise Wauthy, Peter Morris and Peter Spohn were among the many amazing volunteers who pitched in to do the many different jobs. I realized in the process that this had become an art making team! Dave Kulhawy from Mastercraft Flooring offered advise about installation then later Les Broadway stepped in to transport the panel pieces down town. Finally, Larry Gilbert and Tom Walsh painstakingly installed the many pieces.

Matching the corners was a particular challenge! They did a great job. New pieces of public art appear downtown each year. This summer the Peace Pole will be installed beside the train station. Behind each art addition there is a story and many hours of creative work. I hope that you, the members of this diverse and engaged community enjoy the details and meaning of the mural in the square.

Submitted by Nan Goodship