Georgia Straight, Heart of the City Festival Mural

Monday, October 10, 2016

  • Richard Tetrault stands before his massive new triptych, which pays tribute to 13 years of the Downtown Eastside’s Heart of the City Festival. David Cooper

Images don’t get much more diverse than the ones dancing across the wall of Richard Tetrault’s Strathcona studio. A Ukrainian folk performer, First Nations artists, an African-Canadian/Cherokee singer, a Japanese taiko drummer, a Latin-American guitarist, and a Chinese pipa player all find space amid the figures in his massive new triptych.

The piece marks 13 years of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, a celebration that encompasses more than 100 events, from storytelling and poetry to film, theatre, and history walks.

“It’s a microcosm of the Downtown Eastside—the idea of having different figures stand in for all the different disciplines there,” says the artist, speaking in his expansive space in front of the mural, the rest of the walls stacked with leaning and hanging paintings and prints of the neighbourhood he has devoted most of his career—almost four decades—to capturing. “Every one is an actual person and many I know or have known personally,” he says, studying the figures he’s painted in the work, which will be officially unveiled at the fest’s opening ceremony next Wednesday (October 26) at the Carnegie Centre.

Images of such renowned figures as Bud Osborn and Dalannah Gail Bowen crowd into Richard Tetrault's latest work.
David Cooper

It’s just one of a series of visual-arts-minded projects happening at Heart of the City, whose theme for 2016 is “Living on Shared Territory”. Aside from the new mural, carver Skundaal Bernie Williams will be raising her Survivors Totem Pole in Pigeon Park and Jumblies Theatre will helm a community project that creates entire miniature worlds that depict the title’s Realms of Refuge.

As for Tetrault’s mural, it was commissioned to capture the fest’s past and present performers, as well as the artistic legacy of a neighbourhood often unfairly summed up with dismissive headlines about the down-and-out.

“I remember somebody once writing a piece about the Downtown Eastside that was so relentlessly depressing and unresearched, and I thought really what I want to do is show the other side of it,” Tetrault emphasizes. “Not that I don’t know the negative side, and some of that is in my work; I don’t want to put blinders on. But if they think that’s all there is to the Downtown Eastside, they’re missing the boat. Only when you go into the Downtown Eastside and don’t drive through it do you realize the complexity and mutual support there is. And that’s what the festival is: accentuating the positive.”

To create it, Tetrault, who’s well-known for his community mural work and depictions of East Side alleyways and storefronts, worked from photos collected over the years by Heart of the City organizer Vancouver Moving Theatre. You’ll recognize artists like Dalannah Gail Bowen and Diane Wood in his painting. Late poet Bud Osborn has a central place in the mural, his book Lonesome Monsters poking out of his windblown pocket. “I see him as being such a powerful force in the Downtown Eastside and such a creative force,” says Tetrault of Osborn, who turned his life around from drug use and alcoholism to perform poetry about the people of the ’hood.

“I wanted it to be uplifting,” Tetrault notes, considering the painting, with its rich yellows, oranges, and blues flowing together with his signature geometric background forms and spontaneous-feeling brushwork. “I didn’t want it to have a melancholy aspect to it. They’re the positive forces in the community, and the challenge, really, was to give them all individuality.”