- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

My husband and I are explorers. No matter how much we like a vacation destination, we enjoy getting out beyond it to get a feel for the larger area.

That’s how we found Niagara-on-the-Lake during a trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario, nine years ago and how we ended up in the small industrial city of Welland, population less than 49,000, on a recent return to the Niagara area.

Welland is 26 miles from Niagara-on-the-Lake and 16 from Niagara Falls but as different from them as they are from each other. It’s not a pretty city; it isn’t known for its inns, restaurants, shops or art galleries. But it is known for its art: 29 larger-than-life murals that speak eloquently of civic pride and history.

We started out being disappointed by the drab first impression made by a town we had seen described as an “outdoor art museum.” We left smiling, charmed by the treasure-hunt fun of viewing the murals, a bit of serendipity in finding an enjoyable place for a late-afternoon lunch, and the appeal of a waterside park and its rocks-and-statuary fountain honoring immigrant workers.

Our day trip, we agreed, had been a success.

Taken together, the murals that brought us to Welland can be seen as a kind of civic album, with creative depictions of the life of a community instead of snapshots from the history of a family.

Industry, commerce, family life, social events and influential institutions all are depicted, some of them with real people immortalized by artists who used historical photographs and even high school yearbook pictures in creating their works.

Welland’s history is inextricably tied with the Welland Canal, a man-made shipping route that connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

The labor involved in the five-year hand-digging and construction of the first canal, which opened in 1829, plus the development of its successors, a Welland bypass created in the 1970s, and the three tunnels and 11 road and rail bridges that cross it, had to be intense.

Much of the work was performed by immigrants, who also worked in the industries created by and supporting the waterway.

The canal is the subject of 12 of the 29 murals, and the contribution of immigrants is honored, whether explicitly or by inference, in several of them.

One of the most distinctive murals, by the late Dutch artist Bas Degroot, is a mosaic of 12,000 bricks in seven colors that, without even one stroke of paint, depicts people moving to a “New World” — the name of the piece — as white doves about half their size flutter around them.

It “can be interpreted from a spiritual or secular viewpoint,” says a fold-out tour map prepared by Welland’s Festival of the Arts group, which commissioned most of the murals.

“Tell Me About the Olden Days” is one of my favorites, along with “New World” and a stained-glass-style painting called “Wagons” by Barrie, Ontario, artist Andrew Miles that depicts a variety of horse-drawn buggies and wagons.

In “Tell Me,” artist Dan Sawatzky of Chemainus, British Columbia, shows a young boy sitting on his grandfather’s lap, listening intently to the old man’s words. In the background are some of the means of transportation that brought immigrants to the area circa 1910, including a train and an early-model car. In the foreground on the right are a middle-aged man (perhaps the grandfather in an earlier time?), a young man, a woman and three children.

“Construction on the Welland Canal provided employment, while new industries offered permanent jobs and a reason to settle down,” the tour map says.

Murals focusing on the canal range from the muscular 30-foot-tall “Canal Digging” by Lincoln, Ontario, artist Brian Romagnoli to the dramatic but peaceful “Upbound at Midnight,” in which Welland artist Ross Beard, who has two other canal-themed murals in town, uses deep blues to show a ship named the Erindale making its way through the canal at night as lights reflect softly off the water.

Unfortunately, a few of the murals are showing signs of wear, but most are in excellent condition.

Several of them include “can you find” challenges: to look for Ottawa artist Stefan Bell’s juggling equipment in his three-panel depiction of canal “Tugboats,” and to find a mural-within-a-mural on Toronto artist Paul Elliot’s three-part “Triathlon,” recognizing a local event, the Mike Burwell Triathlon.

Some of the murals are outside the downtown, but 19 of them can be viewed in an easy walk along about four blocks of Main and Division streets and the roads that intersect them.

We started out following the numbered map in a sort of directed scavenger hunt but finally decided it was more fun just to stroll through town, letting the murals catch us by surprise — “Here’s one; oh, look, across the street, two in that parking lot.”

An unsuccessful attempt to buy film with American money — the convenience-store owner didn’t know the exchange rate, didn’t accept credit cards and had a debit-card scanner that apparently accepted only Canadian cards — sent us to a bank and, from that, to another delightful find.

“Here?” a friendly teller responded with amusement when we asked where to find something to eat. Another customer quickly suggested La Cantina, about a half-block away.

“[The owner’s] Italian; I have to look out for my countryman,” he said with a big smile.

We soon realized he had steered us well. La Cantina didn’t look promising from the outside, sitting next to a tile shop and with a big yellow sign over the door that made me think of a greasy spoon.

On either side of the recessed door, though, were charming murals of Italian village life, and inside, the decor was stylish and contemporary, if a bit dark because of the deep gray stuccolike ceiling. Tile work on the floors and especially on the walls of the ladies’ room made me think a master had gone to work on the interior.

It turns out that the tile master was the owner, Toni Del Duca, who also laid the stone for the base, walls and fountain in the large patio out back, where we met him on our way out of the restaurant.

La Cantina is the realization of a dream he had for many of the more than 35 years since he and his wife, Giovanna, arrived in Canada from Cassino, Italy.

During that time, he developed a successful construction and tile business (the one in the store next door, which he has turned over to a longtime employee) and a full life. He helped his grandchildren place some of the tiles so they could be part of the new enterprise. Visiting with him was a highlight of our day.

The food was fine, too, though all we ordered for a late, light lunch was fried calamari (crisp and not at all rubbery) and Caesar salad. The rest of the menu is Italian comfort food, familiar and not expensive.

On our way out of town, we made another happy discovery, the Welland Canal Memorial Monument — designed by Mr. Degroot, creator of the “New World” mosaic mural — and erected in 2001 under sponsorship of the Welland Multicultural Centre.

Some canal workers “lost their lives digging with picks and shovels, many left their families in their homelands who came to Canada in search of work,” the city’s Web site says in discussing the memorial.

Unfortunately, Mr. Degroot died before he could finish the memorial, so a local couple, Mylinda and Bill Jurgenson, completed its statues, and city workers “volunteered their time and city equipment to help us get started,” the Web site says.

We were drawn first to four life-size statues of laborers, especially one lugging a heavy bag, by the side of a fountain and pool made of rocks. In walking around the monument, we came across the statue of a young boy sitting on the rocks and looking toward the canal.

In the water, two boys were sharing an inflatable raft while another floated on an inner tube.

On the grassy bank, a group of bikers was taking a break, while on the Welland Canal Trail, which runs along both sides of the water, couples were strolling.

A father and daughter skated off the trail to rest on a bench by the monument, a martial-arts class was in session on a flat grassy area, and four brothers were scrambling around the monument’s rocks and splashing in the fountain water under their mother’s watchful eye.

It was a delightful, relaxing place to end our outing, but I had one more surprise coming my way. In a short stroll on the trail, I found myself facing the Welland Club, the subject of one of the murals we had seen earlier, painted by Toronto artist John Hood as it looked in the 1920s and 1930s, with lawn bowlers in the foreground.

Our day had come full circle.

The address for La Cantina is 119 E. Main St., Welland, Ontario; 905/732-1099.

Another possibility, popular with day-tripping residents from Niagara-on-the-Lake, is the Rex Hotel, 346 King St., Welland; 905/734-4752. Veal Parmigiana is the favorite.

For information on Welland and the murals, go to www.city.welland.on.ca; click on Leisure among the links at the top.

For places to stay in the Niagara region, including Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-lake, try www.infoniagara.com and www.niagaraonthelake.com.

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