Mural Madness – Welland, Canada and York, USA

Mural Madness

Welland, Canada and York, USA

Welland, Ontario, and York, Pennsylvania, have quite a few things in common. Both are small, old industrial cities. Both stand just outside long-established tourist areas, and both attract relatively few visitors compared with those nearby places. There are differences; for one thing, York does have a well-known attraction, albeit a specialized one – a Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant. There is one fascinating thing the two cities have in common, however; both have made large, building-wide external murals that adorn their downtowns and share something of their history and culture. Comparing and contrasting the two is a worthwhile study, and a fun excursion into the recent past.

Welland is probably best known for sitting squarely on the canal that allows shipping traffic to avoid Niagara Falls on its way through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River. It lies in the middle of agricultural plains between the cities of Niagara Falls and Toronto The wheat fields are pretty, but the town isn’t much to look at when you reach the first buildings. We actually found the murals a bit hard to locate at first, but after spotting the first one, the rest weren’t hard to spot.

The first major concentration of them, at East Main Street just past River Road and around the town’s newspaper building, provides a great introduction. One of the best is artist Dan Savatsky’s “Tell Me About the Olden Days,” in which a grandfather regales his grandson (who reminded us a bit of our own son) with tales of Welland’s days as a railroad and trading center, all of which is lavishly illustrated in the mural. The size of this mural is typical; it’s at least 50 feet wide and two stories high. Nearby is “Little Helper” by the same artist, which had a more agricultural theme, and Ross Beard’s more mystical “Upbound at Midnight,” a haunting and surrealistic image of a ship headed up the canal at night. The work reminded us a bit of the poem about going gently into the good night (which the ship seems to be doing, if not in the way to which Dylan Thomas was referring), and of the famous “Starry Night” painting by Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the mural faces the street directly, and shows a lot of wear.

The Wagons mural in Welland, Ontario,
The “Wagons” mural in Welland, Ontario,
Speaking of the canal, its lovely blue waters are only a few blocks up the street – and nearby, there are more of the murals. Another, somewhat grittier, image of Welland as it was, with storefronts, factories, streets, and immigrants (Canada is as much a nation of immigrants as our home country, the U.S.) is visible in Mike Svob’s “Main Street” and Philip Woolf’s aptly named “Downtown Welland.” Both paintings use lively, bright colors. We still didn’t see our favorite mural until we started out of town on Division Street, which parallels East Main as it heads uptown. Andrew Miles’ “Wagons,” at the corner of Division Street and River Road, is a colorful cubist work resembling stained glass or Georges Braque. Ironically, the most modernist of the works we saw had the oldest theme, hearkening back to the earliest settlers of the region and their mode of transportation.

Why so many different artists and themes? It turns out that Welland hoped to revive its downtown with the murals, and hired artists from all over Canada to paint them. The result was a fascinating diversity of styles and themes. The project started in 1986, and continues to this day, with a total of 29 murals in various parts of the town. The results are stunning, although some of the older paintings badly need conservation work. The indigenous nature of the murals is quite a contrast to the artificiality of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the casinos, and many of the other attractions that lie just up the road in and around Niagara Falls.

The city of York, Pennsylvania, has its own mural project, and it is similar to Welland’s in many ways. Like those of Welland, the York murals are intended to revitalize a downtown that, like so many in the eastern and midwestern United States, has seen its share of hard times. Like Welland, York is also near, but not within, a heavily touristed zone that (in York’s case) includes the Dutch country of southestern Pennsylvania and the nearby town of Hershey.

The murals in York and Welland are similarly sized, taking up large portions of exterior building walls. They were also made by a wide variety of artists from all over that city’s country, and at least one other country, since Canadian artist Michael Svob painted murals in both Welland and York. One minor difference is that the Welland murals are maintained and procured by the city, while a non-profit organization, York Murals Inc., manages the York murals. Another, more important, difference is that the York murals touch on both local and national history. This is a natural fit, since in York, the first capital of the United States, local and national history dovetail together.

York’s claim to first-U.S.-capital status hinges on the fact that the Articles of Confederation, the predecessors to the Constitution, were adopted here in 1777. Appropriately, there is a mural here commemorating the event a short distance from where it happened, painted by David Haydock, which captures some of the give-and-take that must have gone into the agreement.

Not far away, near the corner of North George and East Philadelphia Street, Philadelphia artist Michael Webb’s huge “History of Pottery” mural honors the role of the Pfaltzgraff ceramic company in York’s economic history. It is also the most technically impressive of the murals we saw, filling a whole building side with every detail of pottery making. To the left, potters do their work, some with their hands and some with their minds, seated at computers. To the right, other workers load and ship the creations. Most impressive of all, the factory roof above all this is rendered with a vanishing perspective that resembles a church clerestory in a medieval painting, and the kiln at the center of the mural seems to swallow up a cart full of new product. Above the roof, a progression of successive teapots, bowls, and plates presents a quiet chronological history of the company’s offerings, an unusually subtle touch for a public mural.

Another one of York’s hometown industries is honored by Svob’s mural “The Harley-Davidson Tradition” at West Market and Grant Street, just over the bridge that crosses Codorus Creek. This work shows, among other things, Elvis Presley enjoying one of the famous cycles.

The Four Chaplains mural in York,
The “Four Chaplains” mural in York,
None of these murals are the most moving, however. That honor belongs to Connie Burns Watkins’ “The Four Chaplains,” a few blocks away at the corner of North Beaver and West Market Street. The mural tells the story of an incident in 1943, in the Atlantic Theater of World War II. Four chaplains on the U.S.S. Dorchester–a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi, and two ministers from the Dutch Reformed and Methodist churches–gave up their life jackets so that four other crewmen would live, then went down on the ship together. Rabbi Alexander Goode was from York, which is the reason the mural is here. The four men are pictured above a calm North Atlantic, their haunting portraits linked by the rope of the ship. The center of the mural shows the four of them arm in arm, preparing for their fate, as eyewitnesses said they were at the end.

Nearby, on West Market near the intersection with South Penn, is another mural that suggests the diversity of the city, “William C. Goodridge, Black Entrepreneur,” by Don and Jared Gray. Goodridge, a former slave, owned several area businesses, including a barbershop and a photo studio with his son, before he died in 1873. A rail line he managed is thought to have been used by the Underground Railroad to transport escaped slaves (one instance in which that famous route was literally a railroad). The mural shows various stages of his life, starting with his childhood and ending with a successful adult, standing in front of a building he owned with an appropriately proud expression. The most unusual murals are actually copies of works by folk artist Lewis Miller, who lived in York County in the nineteenth century. A local teacher and painter, Miller’s work depicted workaday life among the Pennsylvania Dutch people in the York area with a humorous and light touch. Local artists Justine Landis and Mary Straup copied his work and blew it up to mural size, and the result shares his work with a whole new audience in a new century.

The Welland and York murals are a fascinating and notable achievement. The citizens of these two cities did not build a theme park, or contrive anything, to encourage visitors. Instead, they made use of their own indigenous history, and of the talent of their nation, to create something aesthetically pleasing, fun, and educational all at the same time. While those things aren’t mutually exclusive at all, it is still a real pleasure to find all of them together in one place.

The main source of information on the Welland murals was the web site. We visited Welland and viewed the murals in April, 2005. The city’s official web site was also helpful. The main source of information on the York murals was a visit to York in January, 2006. The York Daily Record web site also has valuable information.

Tony Porco lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb with his wife and son. His writings have appeared on the BootsnAll and Democratic Underground web sites, along with the newsletter of the National Aquarium in Washington. His poetry can be read in several literary magazines.