Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 28 Day of Mourning Mural

A Phoenix Arises from the Mines of Saskatchewan
By Doug Taylor

Crystal Howie is committed to making public art; art that is available and approachable to all. So she created her latest mural in the depths of the Esterhazy potash mines.

Her first major work was very public. Commissioned by the Saskatchewan Centennial Workers Celebration Committee to celebrate the contributions of Labour to the building of Saskatchewan, Crystal’s “Workers Mural” is a colourful 30’ by 10’ work that resides on the front of the Union Centre in downtown Regina. It is public, accessible and earns the pride of Regina’s labour movement. So how did her latest work end up in the mines?

Working Down Under
Raised in Churchbridge near Esterhazy, Crystal worked four summers in these mines while putting herself through school at the University of Regina.

"Working underground gave me a chance to broaden my imagination." she says. "There really is not much underground, at first glance. But after I had spent some time working there, and you could say living there, I began to see the beauty and immensity of my experience. Maybe this experience is universal for miners. I'm not sure. But the idea of where you are and how it changes you forever. The way you look at work, life, surface, and anything that is beneath your feet, is absolutely amazing," says Howie. "To this day I look at the ground beneath my feet as something so strange. There will now always be this possibility that something, someone, is walking around beneath my feet," she adds.

Upon graduating in 2003, Crystal was determined to use her skills and knowledge to give back to the working class community she came from.

Digging things up
It wasn’t easy to get a project connected with the mines and community up and running. The first obstacle was money; the second was buy-in from Mosaic Saskatchewan. A grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board for a one year artist-in-residency in Esterhazy got her past the first and working with local mine management achieved the second.

Chandra Pratt, human resources manager at the Mosaic mine in Esterhazy, told the Moosomin World Spectator “Not being an artist myself and not ever thinking we would employ an artist, or have an artist working on our site, she had intrigued me and I asked more questions on what it would look like and what would be the expectation from Mosaic to make the process work.”

Engaging the workers themselves was also without complications.

Howie said the miners received her with mixed reactions. “Each individual has their own set of mixed understandings of what an artist is, or could be, or should be,” she said. “Those are challenges for me as an artist, but they’re also just the way a person is.”

Crystal worked with a key group of interested workers in the spring of 2008 and let the process develop. With no pre-conceived ideas, the main theme unfolded as a mural dedicated to Canada’s National Day of Mourning.

Day of Mourning
The National Day of Mourning is observed on 28 April and commemorates workers who have been killed, injured or suffered illness due to workplace related hazards and incidents. The National Day of Mourning was first declared in 1984 by the Canadian Labour Congress. April 28 was picked because on that day in 1914, the Workers Compensation Act received its third reading. In December of 1990, this day became a national observance with the passing of the Workers Mourning Day Act. Larry Hubich, President of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, stated “Last year, a worker died every two weeks in our province. Saskatchewan has the second worst injury rate in the country.”

Crystal Howie’s mural is a complex intertwining of symbols and images that try to capture the nature and spirit of her mining community.

A phoenix and a rose
As you first approach the mural, a rising phoenix in the centre grabs your attention. The phoenix has historically represented renewal and rejuvenation. It is a symbol of hope.

Just above is a rose, drawn from the slogan of the woman’s movement “We fight for bread but we fight for roses too.” Working lives are not just about wages but about the quality of our families and communities.

Work and safety
On the left panel is a male worker, clad in personal protective equipment, combating the fire

from the mural centre with a shovel. With his other hand, he reaches to rescue the houses central to the mural.

The houses represent the many aspects of peoples’ lives, community and pursuits.

Water and potash
The left segment is dedicated to water, an element essential to life and work. Water serves to nourish us all but for mine workers means protection as well. A great deal of worker safety training is dedicated to fire as the fire extinguisher demonstrates. Herein lies the strength of the tradesperson, clad in helmet, work gloves and torch, identified as a First Nations person from the eagle’s feather.

The female worker at the right side of the mural is also a brave mother. She holds her baby tightly to herself and a hand watches over her, giving her courage to face water and fire.

Together these images weave a story rooted in work, family and community. Danger and death are balanced with safety and life.

Working with the community
While engaging with her partners in the mine for the first half of her residency, Crystal also worked with the community to establish art appreciation seminars and art programming for other artists in the Esterhazy region. “Those things are important to me, but they’re also important to other artists because they need to know their rights as workers, and they need to know what it is they’re up against,” Howie said. “They need to have support systems and networks to be able to communicate, so professional issues for artists is one of the things that I was able to see that the community wanted and I was able to provide that.”

By building these activities into her work, Crystal ensured that her mural would have a reflection above ground.

Art arises from a mine
Unveiled in April 2009, the National Day of Mourning: Safety for Workers, Their Families and the Community, is a celebration of the workers.

“The message is that workers are people who are living a reality,” she said. “They have hopes and dreams. They are creative beings. They have strength, courage, and the ability to do what is necessary in their lives and the lives of others.”

Crystal has returned to the University of Regina to work on her Masters degree. She takes a little more of the mines with her.

Also see the Regina Workers Mural by Crystal Howie.
Mine safety concerns raised at Sask. legislature
SFL News release: Day of Mourning

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