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Muralist turns Vancouver into open-air gallery

Our bus rocketed along the frantic Avenida Victoriano de Garzón when I caught a fleeting glimpse of a giant painted canoe on the side of a wall.

This classic icon of Canadiana seemed out of place overlooking a service station in Santiago, Cuba.

As it turns out, the large mural, completed earlier this year, was the collaborative effort of Cuban artists with a Canadian group calling themselves La Raza. Among them was Richard Tetrault.

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In eastside Vancouver, there are three kinds of wall painting - commercial, graffiti, and Tetrault.

He is a muralist responsible for dozens of projects in the city.

Where others see a boring, dreary, blank wall, he sees a canvas.

As in Cuba, he does not work alone, preferring to co-ordinate with those from the community in which a mural is to be situated. Local residents take part in the conjuring, the planning and, the most fun of all, the painting.

He describes the process as being "like a bunch of musicians jamming together."

You can hardly take a stroll on the eastside without bumping into works in which he has had a hand. Life in the city is much the better for it.

A spectacular example can be found on the west-facing wall of the Orwell Hotel, a former flophouse at 456 East Hastings St., since renovated and now managed by the Vancouver Native Housing Society. The society commissioned Mr. Tetrault to be co-artistic director of a mural project to cover the 7,600-square-foot, west-facing wall.

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The result, completed last summer, is "Through the Raven's Eye," a breathtaking landmark of aboriginal art that makes a bold statement for the neighbourhood.

To mark the centennial of Britannia High School two years ago, murals were painted on the school, on the side of an Italian bakery on Commercial Drive, and on the Adanac Bicycle Corridor, the latter including an image honouring the Militant Mothers of Raymur, who, 40 years ago, blocked the railroad tracks behind their social-housing project until a pedestrian overpass was built to ensure their children could safely get to school.

At 600 Campbell Ave. in Strathcona, three walls of the Russian Hall have been decorated in colours inspired by Etruscan and Byzantine frescoes. While Mr. Tetrault likes to bring art to neighbourhoods, in this case the art came to his neighbourhood. He lives with his partner, the photographer Esther Rausenberg, also a member of La Raza, less than half a block away.

In the words of one city councillor, these murals have turned the eastside into an open-air art gallery.

Born in White Rock, Mr. Tetrault has lived in east Vancouver for more than three decades. While hitchhiking in Mexico in the mid-1970s, he found inspiration for his future works.

"I saw [Jose]Orozco murals in Guadalajara and [Diego]Rivera murals in Mexico City," he said. "I was blown away by them. The elegance. The distinct language. It has an immediate appeal because of the beauty of the colour. They're so thought out. That's a beautiful thing, integrating imagery with architecture. And making it relevant."

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Mexican muralism was an expression of the strength of their ancestry, done without words, as many remained illiterate through the 20th century.

Years later, Mr. Tetrault spent six weeks in the Cuernavaca studio of the late David Siqueiros, the third of the great Mexican muralists.

"Once that gets in your bloodstream," he said, "it never really leaves."

The artist has since worked in collaboration with muralists in Chile, Argentina and Cuba, where he helped complete earlier this year the Santiago mural spotted from the bus.

Titled "Punto de Contacto" (Point of Contact), the artwork includes images from the two countries, from Canadian ravens to the Cuban tocororo, a bird of the Sierra Maestra mountains.

The latter created a dilemma, as an enthusiastic Cuban artist brushed an oversize bird that dominated the wall. The bird had to be politely redone at a more appropriate scale without bruising the feelings of the artists playing host.

That's the thing about muralists. When they're up against the wall, they paint it.

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