Comforting rebirth of mural

May 13, 2004, vol. 30 no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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If Charles Comfort had believed in re-incarnation, the celebrated Canadian muralist would have been comforted by the rebirth of one of his most prized works.

The Toronto Dominion Bank financial group (TDBFG) recently donated his sweeping oil painting on canvas, B.C. Pageant, to Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus gallery.

Historical figures in the 19 metre long mural gaze down from a 9 metre height on passing students, faculty and staff in the northeast concourse of SFU's academic quadrangle.

The depiction of explorers, a Nootka chief, and B.C. pioneers is one of Simon Fraser gallery's first acquisitions in its new, 144 metre long B.C. hall of art.

“The AQ's northeast concourse will become arguably the largest public gallery in a university setting,” predicts Laura Moodie, the gallery's art curator.

“This hall will house notable works by famous Canadian artists, particularly B.C. painters and northwest coast First Nations artists, who have made their mark portraying B.C. subject matter.”

For 51 years, B.C. Pageant hung high above customers and staff at the Granville and Pender branch of the Toronto Dominion financial group.

In 1951, the bank commissioned Comfort to paint a romantic, panoramic of B.C.'s colonization and development for its newest branch.

Now, as it did then, the painting generates a lot of pointing, looking and talking.

“If you think about the context in which Comfort painted B.C. Pageant, its rebirth in SFU's environment is totally fitting,” reflects Warren Gill, SFU's VP-university relations.

“Back then, B.C. Pageant was Comfort's first experiment with creating a mural in a very public setting. His work generated tremendous discussion and curiosity and it continues to do so today at a university dedicated to fostering dialogue, diversity and discovery.”

SFU has not shied away from responding to criticism about the university's lack of sensibility in exhibiting a work that romanticizes colonialism.

“People should take a closer look at how Comfort portrays First Nations people and art in this piece,” suggests Moodie, an expert on the censorship of historical art. “Instead of kneeling in supplication to white explorers, Chief MaQuinna of the Nootka is shown as being of equal stature. Comfort was actually at the forefront of believing indigenous people should be treated with respect.”

Moodie feels recently acquired works by Bill Reid, a renowned, native B.C. sculptor, and the future additions by First Nations artists, will balance the B.C. hall of art's historical perspective.

Comfort, a Scottish immigrant, is known for his mammoth murals in major venues, such as Ottawa's National Library and Montreal's Central Station.

The TDFG, a significant benefactor of SFU over the years, donated B.C. Pageant to the university, after closing its Granville and Pender branch in 2002.

Worth about $600,000, B.C. Pageant was an integral piece in the group's contemporary Canadian and Inuit art collection.

“SFU's Burnaby campus art gallery was the most suitable recipient out of many possibilities because of the gallery's plan to create a B.C. hall of art,” says the group's art curator Natalie Ribkoff.

“Given the mural's subject matter, the bank wanted it to stay on permanent display in B.C. SFU had the perfect space.”

Thanks to a $50,000 donation from the family of the late Allen Lambert and another $25,000 from TDBFG, SFU was able to restore the grime and smoke stained B.C. Pageant. Lambert was a longtime manager and CEO at the TDBFG and founded its art collection.

He also managed the TDBFG branch that now houses SFU's Wosk centre for dialogue, and helped fund the centre.

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