COC Magazine February 1987
R. York Wilson was at the height of his fame in the 1950s and '60s, he was
one of this country's most talked about artists. Critics praised his
brightly colored abstracts as enthusiastically as collectors snapped them
up. Newspaper columnists never tired of writing about Wilson, his
wife, Lela, and their travels and adventures. But nothing Wilson
ever did in his long and distinguished career received more attention - or
notoriety - than the massive mural he created for the O'Keefe Centre.
Now, thanks to a recent cleaning, Wilson's work has
been restored to its former glory. With 26 years' worth of dirt and
grime removed, the mural sparkles once again. It's easy to see why
his contemporaries considered Wilson Canada's leading colorist.
But no work of art ever had a harder birth. It was notorious long
before it was completed. It made
headlines as far away as London, England. At issue was the survival
of artistic freedom in the face of union demands. Because the O'Keefe
Centre was still a construction site, the International Brotherhood of
Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America decided that Wilson had
better sign up. He refused. The union threatened a work
stoppage. The fight was on...
But in September, 1958, when the story
one could have foreseen such an outcome. O'Keefe had just formed a
committee whose task was to select an artist to create "the largest
mural ever undertaken in Canada." The huge work, measuring 100
feet by 15 feet, was to be "the focal highlight of the lobby of the
O'Keefe Centre," then still under construction. The
committee, which included Martin Baldwin, director of the Art Gallery of
Toronto (now Art Gallery of Ontario) A.J. Casson, last living member of
the Group of Seven, and Charles Comfort, was also entrusted with approving
the final design of the monumental work.
"This mural is not a piece of decoration,"
Casson said at the time, "but an important contribution to Canadian
art. It will present the artist with many challenges never before
encountered in executing a mural in Canada." Casson couldn't have
known just how prophetic his words would be.
On November 20, 1958, the committee announced that Wilson had been
chosen. the decision made a lot of sense. Wilson was
exhibiting his paintings internationally and had completed several
successful murals, most notably the Redpath Library at McGill University
in Montreal and the Salvation Army headquarters and the Imperial Oil
Building here in Toronto.
True to form, Wilson set to work by producing an extended series of
preparatory sketches. Though they are a far cry from the finished project, these sketches
have a life all their own. Even the most casual, done in ink on
newspaper, have a vitality that transcends their humble origins. The
result of this year-long process was a semi-abstract celebration of
culture. Titled "The Seven Lively Arts", Wilson's mural
depicted dance, drama, painting, sculpture, literature, music and
The piece, which exemplifies Wilson's ability to balance
realism and abstraction, was thoroughly modem. It contained many
historical references but the overall feeling was one of energy and
movement. Not only did it identify the purpose of the centre, it
humanized the surroundings. Best of all, perhaps, the mural is a
statement of its time.
So was its making. If things started quietly,
they soon got loud. Shortly after Wilson had begun work on the mural
with two assistants, Bob Paterson and John Labonte-Smith, then students
at the Ontario College of Art, they were approached by members of the
Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America. They demanded that Wilson and his helpers join the union. The mural,
they argued, came under the union's jurisdiction, which included stage
murals, scenery and costume design. As the delegation from the union
also pointed out, the three artists were the only workers on the site who
didn't belong to a union.
"R. York Wilson International Brotherhood of Painters
Decorators & Paper Hangers"
Strip by Grassick of The Telegram, Toronto, Wed., Jan 20, 1960
By mid-December, representatives of the union, O'Keefe
Centre and O'Keefe Breweries were holding talks on the issue. The
union officially demanded that the mural be painted by its members. "We have served notice that we want the mural finished by persons
carrying a union card," said Harry Colnett, Canadian vice-president
of the union. Failure to comply, it was strongly hinted, would lead
to a walk-out and/or picketing of the building site.
For his part, Wilson refused adamantly to have anything
to do with the union. He considered the whole episode
"absurd" but had to fight to affirm his position that an artist
must remain independent. Indeed, Wilson went on record as saying he
would finish the mural without the union even if it meant he had to do it
In January, 1960, Wilson and the union reached an
uneasy peace. The union would withdraw its demand that he join. In return, Wilson would complete the work by himself; the artist might be
exempt from union claims, but not his helpers. Under pressure, both
Wilson, however, was not happy with the arrangement. He was a 53 year-old man who had suffered a heart attack only three years
before. "I have been advised by my doctor, W.F.
Greenwood," he wrote in a statement, "that I am not in good
enough physical condition to complete the mural by myself. For these
reasons," he continued, "I have no alternative but to follow the
advice of my legal adviser..." Wilson's lawyer, George Ferguson, sat
down with the union and hammered out an agreement. The union finally
conceded Wilson's right to complete the mural without joining the union.
Wilson had won. He had asserted the independence
of the artist. But it was a costly victory. The leading arts
groups of the day rallied to his support. The Royal Canadian
Academy, the Ontario Society of artists, the Canadian Group of Painters
and the Sculpture Society of Canada pooled their resources and paid half
the lawyer's fees. Wilson also received legal advice from the late
Bora Laskin, who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court of
Word of the dispute, and of Wilson's triumph, spread. The Times of London ran an editorial hailing Wilson as the first man to
challenge the guild since the 17th century.
Wilson's wife remembers the experience vividly. "It was very frightening," she says simply. "We were
getting threatening phone calls saying York might have an accident on the
scaffolding or something. At one point Bora told us to disappear for
awhile." They did, for three days.
But when the mural was at last unveiled in May, 1960,
it was a hit. Like Wilson's other large works, it soon became part
of the fabric of the city. Though we may tend to take it for
granted, the O'Keefe piece is a spectacular example of the art of the
1950s. Wilson was working in a style that might be termed decorative
cubism. Though the mural has many abstract elements, it also
contains a high degree of realism. The references are never obscure
or hard to make out. In the architecture section, for instance, we
see a clear representation of the Parthenon. In the painting
section, Wilson added figures taken from the hieroglyphics of ancient
Egypt. Again, there is no difficulty making them out.
In some areas of the mural, however, Wilson was less
straightforward. Perhaps because it depicts movement, his portrayal
of dance is the most abstract of the mural. The swirling men and
women it portrays, their arms and legs wildly extended, seem to come right
off the surface.
As O'Keefe general manager Charles Cutts puts it: "In addition to adding class and elegance to the lobby, it really
makes a statement on its own." Cutts also plans to improve the
lighting of the mural. The trick is to devise a way of increasing
the brightness without making it hotter. The process is complex but
it should be in place sometime next year.
For Diane Falvey, the Toronto conservator who
supervised the recent cleaning of the mural, the lighting will be the
finishing touch. She and an army of 20 helpers spent four days, 6
a.m. to midnight, washing the work with cotton swabs. "We
removed tons of dirt," she says. "All of it brown and
ugly." The difference was immediately noticeable. "I
remember standing in the darkened lobby just after we'd finished and the
colors seemed to glow," she recalls. "It was a really
What impressed Falvey, who by virtue of her profession
is a technically minded person, was how well Wilson chose his materials.
"He made his own paint," she explains, "using a special
type of polyvinyl acetate (PVA)." According to Falvey, PVAs are
desirable because they're "highly stable" and "color permanent." Wilson, she says, "was ahead of his time in his
choice of material."
As a result, the mural should be around for many years
to come. Perhaps now that it has been renewed, it will once again be
recognized as one of Toronto's most beloved artistic landmarks.
Christopher Hume is art critic for the Toronto Star. "Changing
appeared in the February 1987 issue of COC Magazine, the newsletter of the
Canadian Opera Company.