The Coast News Group
Hit the Road

The little town that could

Cim MacDonald admits right up front that she has become adept at forging artwork, but this is a good thing.

  Cim MacDonald explains the restoration process she used on this mural, originally painted in 1984 by Victoria artist Ernest Marza. The work depicts 23 men of the Chinese “Bull Gang,” who are struggling to move a huge timber through the Chemainus lumber yard. Their destination is a waiting ship in the harbor.   Photos courtesy of Jerry OndashChemainus Dollars, “the official currency of Chemainus,” is accepted by many of the town’s merchants and helps keep 80 cents of every dollar in the community. Each of the seven denominations features Emily Carr, Canada’s most famous artist, on the face of the bill. The reverse sides feature some of the 40-plus murals that grace the town’s buildings.     “The Telephone Company,” was painted in 1992 by Cim MacDonald, perched on the antique bicycle, which is part of the artwork. The artists who also serves as curator of the 40-plus murals. The house, which still stands on Maple Street, was the town’s first telephone exchange. “There was only one telephone in town,” explained MacDonald, “so when a call came in, the operator would get on her bicycle and peddle to the person who was being called.”  German immigrant who came to Vancouver in 1951, Karl Schutz is known as the architect of the Chemainus Mural Project, which turned the once-dying sawmill town on Vancouver Island’s east coast into a popular tourist destination. The 83-year-old has helped more than 100 communities with their economic development through the arts and tourism, including Twentynine Palms in eastern San Bernardino County. This mural, painted in 2002 by David Goatley, depicts the important connection provided by Canada’s post office between Chemainus residents and soldiers at the front during World War I. It is one of 40-plus murals that make up the town’s outdoor gallery, which draws visitors from all over the world. Besides Canada, artists hail from the United States, Scotland, Germany and the Bahamas.Colorful buildings line the streets in Old Chemainus. Many were constructed in the late 1800s when the largest sawmill in Canada was operating at full steam. The closing of the mill in the early 1980s could’ve created a ghost town until civic leaders decided to follow Karl Schutz’ idea and create an outdoor mural gallery that he promised would draw tourists.Owners of the Owl’s Nest Bakery and Bistro, Jacky and Kara Lai opened their café in March on picturesque Willow Street in Chemianus. The café features gourmet coffee, from-scratch entrees and a wide selection of gluten-free goodies, mostly made with local produce and farm products. The bistro accepts Chemainus Dollars, local currency that helps keeps money in the community. “Chemainus is the perfect community in which to raise our son,” Jacky said.

The artist is the Curator of Murals — “a never-ending job” that requires maintaining and restoring the 40-some outdoor murals that grace the buildings in Chemainus (Sha-MAIN-us). The picturesque town on Vancouver Island is about an hour north of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.

Reviving the murals of Chemainus, which depict railroad and lumber mill scenes, portraits of legendary residents, historic events and buildings and a way of life gone by, is a constant job, as the paintings are always under attack by sun, wind, rain and the occasional human. To keep them looking fresh, MacDonald must duplicate the artist’s style meticulously.

Today, however, her job is less demanding.

She is leading us on a private walking tour of the massive paintings which are scattered throughout the town’s old and new districts. It’s an amazing, ever-growing collection created by artists from Canada, the United States, Scotland, Germany and the Bahamas. As we follow MacDonald’s quick pace, we see large tour buses pull up to the Visitor Centre.

How did a former logging town of 4,000 become a destination that draws thousands of visitors a year?

It began in the early 1980s with the closing of what was “once the biggest sawmill in British Columbia,” according to MacDonald.

More than 700 people in Chemainus were left jobless. To counteract this economic disaster, town leaders and Karl Schutz, a German immigrant, successful businessman and civic activist, looked for ways to revitalize the town. Based on what he’d seen during his worldwide travels, Schutz presented his vision of “magic murals.” The timing was right; Chemainus residents and business owners began what Schutz says was “the largest mural-painting project undertaken in Canada at one time.”

Creating the Chemainus of today took the cooperation of the provincial government, the municipality, merchants and contractors. It meant finding artists and public relations experts, holding media events and figuring ways to raise revenue. A committee settled on a theme for the murals: replicating historic photos of the town.

It’s an amazing story of cooperation and vision.

“Never let those who say it can’t be done stand in the way of those who are doing it,” says Schutz, 83, who drives about town in yellow Volkswagen Beetle festooned in flowers and butterflies. “This would’ve been a ghost town (without the murals). Chemainus is now known as ‘The Little Town That Did.’”

The promotion of Chemainus didn’t stop with the murals.

In 2010, working with the Coastal Community Credit Union and partners who threw in $1,000 each, the Chemainus Monetary Foundation was created. It printed exquisite bills of various denominations that feature the local murals. The bills (traded dollar-for-dollar for regular currency at the credit union), can be spent only in Chemainus, including the boutiques, bakeries and restaurants on picturesque, colorful Willow Street.

“It keeps the money in the community,” Schutz explains. “Some merchants give discounts to those who use the currency.”

Chemainus’ burgeoning arts community has received a lot of support from area businesses like the Best Western Plus Chemainus Inn. Photos and paintings by local artists hang in the lobby, and reproductions of historic photos line the hallways and hang in guest rooms. The dining room is named in honor of Canada’s most famous artist, Emily Carr. A fountain at the hotel’s front door memorializes the annual Chemainus Theatre Festival — not only the 11-month theater season but the formidable, 270-some seat theater itself — not something you’d expect to find in a small town. The productions attract 70,000 theatergoers annually.

We had the pleasure of attending a production of “A Pretty Girl,” the story of the 1946 reunion of two sisters who were separated during World War II. One was raised in New York; the other stayed in Poland and endured the Holocaust. The excellent production was preceded by a buffet dinner in the Playbill Dining Room — an affair that goes beyond the usual roast beef and mashed potatoes. In keeping with the play’s theme, the menu included Polish favorites like haluski and kielbasa.

If you go:

Chemainus, British Columbia — Visit Obtain a full-color map ($3)of the Chemainus murals and sculptures at the Visitor Centre or local merchants.

Chemainus Theatre Festival —; (800) 565-7738.

Where to stay:

Best Western Plus Chemainus Inn –; (877) 246-4181. Within walking distance of the theater, shopping and waterfront. Suites include well-stocked kitchenettes, free high-speed Internet and use of indoor mineral pool and fitness center. Free extensive hot-and-cold breakfast buffet (including gluten-free offerings). Rates start at $135.