The Murals of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: 677 Portage Avenue

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"Fitzgerald Field Notes".
Artist Charlie Johnston's tribute to the life of Canadian Group of Seven artist and Winnipegger, Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald.



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Location: NE corner Portage & Maryland; East Face

Occupant: Spectrum Health Centre

District: West End

Neighbourhood: St. Matthews

Artist(s): Charlie Johnston (C5 Artworks)

Year: 2002

Sponsors: Take Pride Winnipeg!, West End BIZ, Neighbourhoods Alive! (Manitoba)

Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald spent virtually all his life in Winnipeg, the city of his birth. He obtained his art education with evening classes, followed by a year at the Art Students League in New York, 1921-1922 and finally as a Frank Johnston student in Winnipeg. He also worked as a commercial artist in Chicago 1910, and in the display department of Eaton's in Winnipeg in 1912. He began teaching at the Winnipeg School of Art in 1924, and was the school's principal from 1929-1949. Engaged by a variety of art media, Fitzgerald spent equal energy devoted to oil and watercolour painting, printmaking and drawing. He is also known for his landscapes of Manitoba and the west coast of British Columbia and as one of Canada's first artists to explore abstract art. He was invited to become an official member of the Group of Seven in 1932.

Fitzgerald was the only Western Canadian member of the Group of Seven, and didn't NEED to travel: he found his inspiration right here in the West End and St. James. People who've spent time or live in these districts have a strong sense of familiarity with Fitzgerald's paintings; when they look out their own kitchen windows and backyards they see the same sorts of scenes that Fitzgerald did. The fact that he found beauty and interest in such typical Winnipeg scenes, worthy of rendering to canvas helps us understand a bit better why he was so attached to this area. Even a "dead" landscape like Poplar Woods is a wonder to behold because there's confirmation of the natural: though there's no leaves on the trees, the curvy lines of bare branches evokes a sense of animation or a sense of the person and of life which harkens back to his belief in the natural world and the idea that all things are living.

In the winter, he had a small shack on skids that he pulled around when he painted! It had a little wood stove that would keep both him and his paint warm, while he'd gaze out the window at his subjects. Even in his later work, Abstract Green and Gold, the colour palette of green and harvest gold was very much influenced by his time on the prairies and the prairie landscape. The tones are calm and subtle-the same that is often said of prairie folk.

In 2002, artist Charlie Johnston was excited when he learned of the opportunity to do paint a wall dedicated to the life of L.L. Fitzgerald. "I went to art school in the Fitzgerald Building and for me the opportunity to pay tribute to a postimpressionist Canadian painter in a Mural was awesome."

In this writer's opinion, Johnston's flowing scene was ingeniously crafted and is nothing short of a tremendous accomplishment for him and a phenomenal tribute to Fitzgerald. Included in his scenes from left to right are the following Fitzgerald works: Poplar Woods (1929, oil on canvas); Doc Snyder's House (1931); From a Kitchen Window, Winter; Abstract Green and Gold (1954); and Still Life with Hat (1955).

Charlie: "I used photo references of the images to be true to his works and used the projection method at the start. The paintings are a chronology, a sampling of his different stylings through the years. It's like he's reflecting on his life and it places him in the setting in his painting garb, working on the works of his life through the chronology of his life. From the left, this is the first era, and then he did this next piece and you then see a seasonal transformation from fall into the beginning of winter. It's like the seasons of his life and then you move indoors it's like you're moving inside his mind where the realm of abstraction occurs. I couldn't ignore the obvious allegory too: it's like he's laying down his hat before he dies at the end of his life and his career."

The image on the left is Charlie's portrait of L.L. Fitzgerald: "He only did one self- portrait that was a pencil drawing very soft. The other image of him working is from a photograph I had and I played with the image that I turned it around and played with it and made it work so that he was being pulled in to his scene. If you look, he's actually sitting on the ledge there on the wall. The cup is sitting on the ledge too. I used the window as a transitional element to carry forward from this piece (Doc Snyder's House) to this piece (From a Kitchen Window, Winter). I created these ways of blending the images into one another to create a flowing scene."

Charlie built a hoarding (A shelter make from tarp with Propane heaters to keep the paint, the wall and the artist warm) for this as he was working on it in October. "It was the coldest October in Winnipeg in 150 years. I didn't mind it. I'm a veteran of outdoor projects in working with paint and around fumes. I had fun with it. It wasn't as physically challenging as some of my other Murals because it was a more intimate scale. I could stand on the ground and reach the top of the Mural- usually that doesn't happen."

"West End BIZ were the primary sponsor. This was the first in a series devoted to local heroes they want to do. The Spectrum clinic too, they wanted the Fitzgerald Mural. One of the guys there was quite into it and his wife is an art student and a fan of Fitzgerald as well. But the two had quite different mental images of Fitzgerald; his was of the landscapist of Winnipeg and the still life; hers was Fitzgerald the abstract artist. They were both happy with the end result."