York Wilson
HomeAbout This SiteArt DatabaseSearch Site
BiographyVirtual GalleriesMuralsCollectionsVideo ArchivesEndowment Fund
Seven Lively Arts
Story of Oil


The O'Keefe Centre: Thirty Years of Theatre History


One of the more dramatic things that happened while the theatre was being built related to the preparation of York Wilson’s mural.


The architects wanted a mural to be painted on the large north wall in the main foyer.  The wall was 100 feet long and 15 feet high, which would make the mural the largest in Canada. The question then arose of what it should be about and who should paint it.  I had the horrid feeling that if the mural wasn’t a huge success people would say "O’Keefe makes good beer but it doesn’t know much about art!"   The brewing company agreed without hesitation to withdraw any right of veto if I could arrange for a good art committee to be formed to make the necessary decisions.


Hugh Walker

We were very fortunate to get Dr. A.J. Casson (who celebrated his ninety-third birthday on May 1991) to head the committee.  He had been a member of the Group of  Seven since 1926 and was a former president of both the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists.   He was also a member of the Canadian Group of Painters and the Canadian Society of Water Colour.  Cass, as he was called, gladly agreed to be chairman of a committee that included Martin Baldwin, director of the Art Gallery of Toronto (later Ontario), Charles Comfort, president of the Royal Canadian Academy and director of the National Gallery of Canada, Foresey Page and Earle Morgan, architects for the O’Keefe Center, Herbert Irvine, interior decorator for Eatons of Canada, Mrs. T.P. Lownsborough, chair of the Women’s Committee, Art Gallery of Toronto, Sydney H. Watson, principal of the Ontario College of Art, and Charles P. Fell, chair of the National Gallery of Canada.


On November 20, 1958, the committee unanimously agreed to give the commission to York Wilson, and a price of $32,000 was established.  York Wilson had recently completed several very successful murals, the last of which was in the new Imperial Oil Building on St. Clair Avenue West.


The mural’s subject – suggested by George Black – was to be "The Seven Lively Arts," and in it painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, dance and drama were to e represented.  York spent several months researching and making preparatory sketches, as he wanted to depict both early examples of each of the arts and major events in their evolution.  The panel on architecture, for example, shows the Parthenon, a large Gothic church, one of today’s high-rise monoliths, and an interior of no particular period.  The panel on literature shows an open book with, on the left page, a man and woman (representing human relationships – a perennial literary theme) and on the right a sailing ship and an equestrian battle (representing the themes of adventure, travel and war).  There is also a Chinese proverb by Confucius, and whenever I showed the mural to visitors I always told them laughingly that it mean "O.K for O’Keefe."  In reality it means "Learning without thought is labour lost: thought without learning is perilous."


York then prepared individual small panels approximately four feet square in black and white.  After these were approved by the committee, he did them in colour.  Herbert Irvine, who was responsible for the interior decoration of the building, played a part at this stage, because it was important for the colors used by York to blend rather than clash with the colours of the carpet and Carrara marble walls. 


When the small coloured panels were completed, York had them photographed and the slides projected onto the wall so that he could paint the outlines.  He was to share the work with two assistants, graduates of the Ontario College of Art, Bob Paterson and John Labonte-Smith.  In January 1960, shortly after he began painting the mural on the wall, he was approached by a union called the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America.  The union representative informed him that he and his assistants could not do any more work on the mural unless they joined the union.  At first, I just laughed and treated the news as a joke.  It turned out, however, to be no joke at all and very nearly caused a strike that would further delayed construction of the theatre, which was already far behind schedule.  York was determined as a matter of principle to complete the mural without joining the painters and decorators union, but the union claimed that York’s responsibility for the design was finished when he completed the small-scale panels and that the painting on the wall of the theatre came within their jurisdiction. 


York felt strongly that artists must remain independent, and he refused to join.  He sought the help of two colleagues, themselves well-known artists, Alan Collier, president of the Ontario Society of Artists, and Franklin Arbuckle, president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Before the problem was resolved, however, the Canadian Group of Painters, the Sculpture Society of Canada and the Ontario College of Art also became involved.


The artist Doris McCarthy encouraged York to seek advice from Bora Laskin (then professor of Law at York University and later chief justice of Canada), as Laskin had considerable experience in labour disputes. George Ferguson, Q.C., was eventually chosen to represent the artist and was soon able to get the union to withdraw its demands on the grounds that had broken the criminal code, the civic code and the labour code and would be well advised to get out of town and hide!  The battle was won on February 12, 1960, and York was able to complete the mural on his own terms.


Before his death, in 1984, York Wilson was acclaimed as Canada’s greatest muralist.  The mural at the O’Keefe Centre is regarded as one of his best.  York is included (along with Michelangelo) in the World Book Encyclopedia entry on mural painting – quite an honour!  In 1981 he was given a further honour when the Uffizi Gallery in Florence commissioned him to do a self-portrait, which is now hanging in that gallery alongside the work of Michelangelo and other great artists from all over the world. 


In 1986, twenty-six years after it was first painted, the mural was completely restored.  The work took nineteen specialists under the direction of Diane Falvey four days to complete, and the mural now looks as good as new.


Hugh Walker was president and general manager of the O'Keefe Centre from 1960 to 1975. The above passage is from his book, "The O'Keefe Centre: Thirty Years of Theatre History", published in 1991 by Key Porter Books.