Visiting Alberta’s Past :
The Brick Murals of Medicine Hat
by John Althouse
“Each has his own happiness in his hands, as the artist handles the rude clay he seeks to reshape it into a figure; yet it is the same with this art as with all others: only the capacity for it is innate; the art itself must be learned and painstaking.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Great empires were often built from the wealth that precious substances such as gold and silver provided. Yet, if one examines religious texts, it is often a course substance with little monetary value that has played a significant role in major human events. This simple unassuming substance is “clay.” According to the Bible, it is such a base substance from which God drew his greatest creation – man. Over time, man has learned the value of this substance and learned how to shape it, harden it, and utilize it in many ways. The craftsmen using clay became skilled in producing an almost infinite array of items to provide our basic needs, improving the overall quality of life.
Medicine Hat is a city that owes its early prosperity to two basic substances – clay and natural gas. They provided a sound basis for two of the industries that would shape the city. Clay would act as the raw material for these industries in the area when coupled with the abundant natural gas fuel resources of the area. These were the ideal components for development of clay based industries. Here, the clay was used to create an infinite array of pottery ranging from promotional ashtrays to large crocks at a number of plants in the Clay District including the Medalta Pottery Works (see RS, Vol.41 No.3 (Nov 2013) “Visiting Alberta’s Past: Spending a Few Days in Hell’s Basement”). However, these pottery plants were not the sole industry in Medicine Hat that developed because of the presence of the wet, malleable clay. Several brick yards also developed to utilize this base yet valuable local resource. The bricks produced there were used not only for export but played a significant role in the building of many local structures. In the Medicine Hat area, the brick plants provided a material that not only would create the new city but enhanced it and provided a measure of refinement that was not present in many places in the Canadian West. Today, in a walk around Medicine Hat, the traveler will see ample evidence of buildings created from these bricks.
Today, these important industrial sites once so vital remain largely inactive. They serve only as historic sites that tell their unique stories. Recently, the closed IXL Brick Plant has been added to this list. It has begun operating under the auspices of the organization of the Friends of Medalta Society (who act as Stewards of the National Historic Clay District). This plant was closed after it was devastated by the flooding of Ross Creek which is adjacent. Informative guided tours are available of the IXL plant beginning at the Medalta site daily and taking you by bus to the plant. Here, you will be provided with an informative tour. The tour involves a good deal of walking, but provides a great background on the brick industry along with a few surprises.
More recently, bricks have been employed as an art medium in Medicine Hat. They are used to tell episodic tales of the area and its people. This graphic “storytelling” has been done by a local artist James Marshall who has assembled each story one piece at a time molding raw clay into bricks which when assemble into a mural on narrative of importance in the area. The artists represents the history of city and area in a dramatic and (yes, I can’t resist) concrete way in his individual artworks. In essence, these murals that relate the story of Medicine Hat are the “very stuff” that were used once to build it both physically and economically. There is something truly noble in an artist creating the story of a place from the very materials that have given it substance, sustenance, and perhaps even a soul.
In 2009 while attending a conference in Medicine Hat, I first observed a work of James Marshall art being installed on the exterior wall of one of the city’s heritage buildings. The process is a very involved one taking a good deal of labour and time, but the resulting artwork is well worth the effort. The artist plans out his picture, places the wet brick in the shape of the wall, and works on the wet bricks individually, carving away excess material while forming the desired image. He glazes the bricks, takes down the wall, and fires the separate bricks. Once the bricks have been fired, he goes to the site of the mural and reassembles them there with the help of a friend who is skilled brick-layer. (To learn more about this process, see the PBS feature video Northwest Profiles (KSPS): Picture Bricks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF0smdyWbXU
There are a number of these beautiful artworks scattered throughout Medicine Hat. At this point, there is no map available detailing where each of the murals is located. So, arm yourself with a detailed city map and a list of the location of James Marshall’s murals. Plot the points where the murals are located on your map, and then go on your search for them. A camera will be a useful piece of gear on such a trip. Your quest for these beautiful brick murals can become a true adventure.
The murals centre on a number of different themes. The major themes of Marshall’s murals are those which are important in this area: nature, First Nations, education, religion, and the area’s history. Each mural is an exquisite creation. Surprisingly, these brick creations are not artworks in a single drab shade. Each element contains an array of subtle colours. In addition, when you sit and study any of these works, you cannot help but be impressed by the fantastic detail that has been developed in each. Each mural is a sensual banquet, a mixture of textures, contours, levels, and hues. The figures in each of the murals are represented realistically. You will instantly recognize what you are viewing. Each line, each colour, each contour enhances the beauty of each mural by creating a most striking composition.
The murals tell many significant stories of the city and area. One tells of the First Nations tale which led to the city’s name. Others tell of the history of places in the area as does the mural on the outer face of the Redcliff Town Hall. A solitary mural in a Medicine Hat park adjacent to a playground tells of a promising young woman whose life was cut short in an accident. A series of murals in a park adjacent to a hospice tell the timeless story of the passion and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These images speak, telling stories relating to Medicine Hat’s history and its character through the very medium from which the city was built. These murals not only narrate the stories of the city but reveal its very heart and soul.
The powerful images within each mural not only portray themes synonymous with the city but also at the same time themes that are universal. So, they will also resonate in a meaningful yet different ways with each of us. Each mural speaks to us intimately, resurrecting familiar echoes from our past. These brick murals created by James Marshall are one of Alberta’s best kept secrets! These images bring to mind the words of Robert Browning, “Time’s wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.” This phrase appears striking when set against the history of Medicine Hat, a city once nurtured largely by industries fostered by banks of clay. Now that those industries are gone, the history of the place they fostered will continue and endure because of the work of one artist who has captured its essence in bricks made of that clay.
(To see more of the Marshall brick murals visit http://hammersonpeters.com/?p=604 )
This article has not previously been published.