Bringing a bridge to life: An artist’s challenge

The walls of April Paul’s home show her eagerness for turning any surface into a work of art.

Blank wall space is a rarity. Her kitchen has a brightly-coloured map of North America marking the places she’s visited, a family tree with photos attached and a chess board placed in checkmate painted on the ceiling. Playful characters from Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid line the wall of the bathroom.

The 46-year-old fine arts student’s draw to art made accepting her latest challenge — using a bridge as a canvas — an easy decision.

St. Mary’s First Nation Community Planning commissioned Paul to beautify an overpass on Two Nations Crossing this summer, by creating a large-scale mural.

The overpass, an often overlooked piece of infrastructure, now pops with colour. (Alexandre Silberman/AQ)

“I like painting bridges, it brings them out because they’re so dull,” she said.

The corner panel of the north face of the mural features a flower — which was the start of the artwork. A community member showed her a photo of a design which served as the inspiration.

The opposite panel has a butterfly on it named Dakota, after a girl in the community who recently committed suicide.

Cattails, a common plant in the area, are featured on the southern face, along with a moose and turtle. Paul said she chose the turtle due to its place in Indigenous history. The belief among many eastern North American native peoples is that the continent grew off the back of a giant turtle.

The inside of the overpass is a bright strip of purple, which Paul chose for the colour’s connections to elders and ability to make the other elements pop. The top of the side features the word Wolastoq, which means “the beautiful and bountiful river” in the Maliseet language.

Other symbols on the wall are things Paul selected for their connections to the reserve: an eagle, another turtle, arrowheads, a canoe and water.

The bridge’s corrugated sides made applying paint tricky, but ultimately resulted in an unintended effect.

“Apparently when the sun glazes on it, they look like beads,” Paul said.

She was given a few students from Leo Hayes High School to help as a summer job, and another artist completed portions of the interior.

A family of artists

Paul calls the St. Mary’s reserve home, and lives just a stone’s throw away from the project site. Her work can be spotted elsewhere around the community, including the band office and the entertainment centre.

She was set on a career as an artist in Grade One after being inspired by her art teacher. Paul studied at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design when she was 25, and started teaching native art at the reserve’s elementary school after completing her certificate.

April Paul pictured in front of the mural she was tasked to create for the St. Mary’s community. (Alexandre Silberman/AQ)

She then taught at Devon Middle School, and splitting time between the middle school and Fredericton’s two high schools.

The new district administration didn’t think she was qualified enough to work full time with her craft school certificate, so Paul dropped teaching and came to St. Thomas to pursue a fine arts major.

Paul said she thinks her draw to the field of art comes from her background of being part of a family of artists. Many of her relatives are carpenters, sculptors, craftsmen and artists.

“We just have a lot of art genes,” she said.

 

‘Everybody was talking about it’

Paul covered the panels with 15 cans of primer in August to prepare it for paint in early September. She drew the outlines of her designs in chalk before filling them in. The laborious project took nearly three months to complete.

The community was supportive of her work, she said.

“They’d drive by, they’d walk by, they’d buy me coffee, they’d bring me water, they would holler out to me ‘Good job,’” Paul said. “Everywhere I went, everybody was talking about it.”

Paul’s work routine was straightforward. Everyday she would go out to the bridge and work for six to eight hours.

Looking back on her work, she feels the time and effort spent creating the images have played a small role in bringing colour and vibrancy to the community. (Alexandre Silberman/AQ)

“I’d put my headphones on and crank the music up and just paint away, because if I didn’t, everybody would want to talk and I’d get nothing done,” she said, laughing.

It was Paul’s first time working on a bridge, but it might not be the last. A woman from Toronto recently contacted her about doing a similar bridge project in that area.

The lure of various projects had been keeping Paul busy, but she’s considering a return to teaching, or starting her own business after completing her studies at St. Thomas.

She does a lot of beading work, and makes clothing and paintings that she would sell.

But right now, she has a smaller task at hand — completing her mural. A small patch of the purple band needs to be filled in with paint, but Paul needs to wait for the temperature to warm up before it can be applied.

Looking back on her work, she feels the time and effort spent creating the images have played a small role in bringing colour and vibrancy to the community. An overpass, an often overlooked piece of infrastructure, now pops with character.

“They’re ugly looking, but when you add art to it, it spices right up and everybody just loves it.”

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