Paul Ygartua, muralist

Paul Ygartua, muralist

Canadian artist and muralist Paul Ygartua takes on the massive Expo 1986 United Nations Pavilion mural in Vancouver, BC

Canadian muralist Paul Ygartua
Paul Ygartua, Canadian art, UN Pavilion mural, 1986 Expo

In 1986, Paul Ygartua painted the “World United”, UN Pavilion Mural at the 1986 Expo in Vancouver. It was the International Year of Peace and the United Nations theme was world harmony.  It was 9.14 by 30.4 meters (30x100ft) and represented 16 portraits from the 5 races.

Hard work, perseverance, unwavering optimism, relentless confidence and a series of fortunate events… is what it took to bring about the Expo 86 “A World United Mural”.

Canadian muralist Paul Ygartua
Paul Ygartua, Expo 86 United Nations Pavilion
Canadian muralist Paul Ygartua
Paul Ygartua, UN Pavilion, 1986 Expo, Vancouver, BC

In 1983, three years before it was to take place, Paul and Joanne started to think about how being a part of the 6 months Expo 86 in Vancouver would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  So Joanne sent in a resume. Just to get an interview they needed to send in a deposit of 2000 dollars and it would be a year before the interview even took place. One year later, after they returned from living in Rio de Janeiro for 6 months, they had their interview at the Expo site and met one of the rental space managers. The space would have to be manned 12 hours a day for 180 days straight. Given their international experience, they were immediately offered a 700 square foot space. This was much bigger than Joanne was originally ready to take on. They suggested that it would be great if they could find other artisans and artists to share the space. In the end, Joanne accepted and she created a group of 5 artists altogether to share this space and spent a lot of time working on the project with them. Paul and Joanne and the kids spent one year in Europe during 1984/85 and left Joanne’s father, William in charge during their absence. When they returned in 1985, due to financial pressures, the four other artisans pulled out of the project and they were once again back to square one.

Canadian muralist Paul Ygartua in front of his mural
Paul Ygartua at work on mural, Vancouver BC

At this point, Paul was willing to do anything… donate time, even do a mural for free.  So Joanne started calling around, trying to get in touch with anyone who could get them in contact with the right person.
It was the end of January when Joanne’s Father William came up with the idea of Paul painting a “World United” mural for the UN Pavilion where he would depict the five nations of the world.  And this time, he already had the experience of the Chemainus mural which had been a great success. 

So the next afternoon, William prepared the letter for the UN Pavilion at the Expo site, and included all of photos of the Chemainus mural.  The same day, Paul went out to Stanley Park to sell paintings, and there lo and behold, David Cadman, an admirer of Paul’s native work, just happened to be in the park and stopped to watch Paul working on one of his native painting.  They started talking and Paul mentioned that he was frustrated with Expo as he wanted to have his work on the site.  He says: “I would even do it for free!”.  David Cadman looks at him and says: “Well, Paul, this is your lucky day.  I am the President of the UN here in Vancouver, so drop down to the site on Monday and let’s see what we can do.”  

Paul arrived back at Joanne’s parents house for dinner that evening and as they were about to tell him about their letter to the UN, he came out with his story.  Paul said: “Don’t worry about the letter! I already have an appointment down at the Expo site Monday morning.”  They couldn’t believe it!

A World United, Canadian mural by Paul Ygartua
Canadian artist Paul Ygartua
Expo 86 Vancouver mural by Paul Ygartua

The UN Pavilion was 9.14 meters high by 30.4 meter long.  This was a mammoth project.  After a one hour meeting on the Monday morning, Paul says: “This is big, I wouldn’t be able to paint during the time that I am working on the mural.”  As we say, “Where there is a will, there is a way”.  Joanne said:  “Take whatever time you need.  Don’t worry about anything else as we can make it up later.” So that is what they did.  Paul donated his time to paint one of the most popular murals of Expo 86.

This mural was approached very differently to the Chemainus mural.  Paul and Joanne thought about the idea of doing an excellent version of the mural on canvas and hopefully sell it to the Credit Union, who were the sponsors of the UN Pavilion.  So Paul started off with a 4x6ft painting, but once he had the five races, he thought it would be better with another three feet on both ends–making it a 12 ft x 4ft painting.  He needed this for the balance and the flow.  He put the Haida Chief and Mosa Mohave, both from Edward Curtis’s Studies in the center of the painting.  He chose these portraits as the centerpiece because they were powerful faces and he wanted to have the First People of Canada as the focal point.  Joanne says: “It just came together so beautifully and then we figured $10,000.00 would be a good price because it was a painting and of course they could do reproductions of it.”

The idea grew. They had an appointment with the UN representatives and UNICEF, who were in charge of all the activity inside the pavillon, as well as the heads of the Credit Union Bank, the sponsors of the building.  They presented the idea to them that from this painting they could reproduce 800 limited editions as well as posters and postcards. They loved this idea and the painting. In the end, it turned out to be a fabulous idea as this is how they ended up making money.  The first thing the head of the Credit Union said was: “Paul, why do you have natives in the center of your painting and not a white man?” Paul said:  “Well they are the First People of Canada and I can’t think of any other persons that could represent Canada better.”  So no one argued with him.

A world United Mural by Paul Ygartua
Canadian muralist Paul Ygartua

Thanks to Paul’s generous contribution of his time to create A WORLD UNITED mural, the UN decided to give them 60% of all the sales of the limited editions, posters and postcards. Joanne enjoyed working with their staff as well, dealing with daily orders. They also organized signings where Paul was at the pavilion for the tourists that wanted a hand-signed poster.  Joanne remembers how much work those six months were: “Thinking back it was a huge project and I don’t know how we dealt with the deliveries and organized everything. It was a solid 6 month non-stop work load.” As well as the limited editions, they also wanted them framed, so the Davie Art Shop took care of that and these were also for sale. The first 100 editions were given as a memorable gift of EXPO 86 celebrating their official sponsorship of UN and these were hung in all the Credit Union Banks in BC.

Paul ended up working on the mural for 5-6 weeks and everyday he was applauded by the workers on site and received adulation from everyone.  It was a truly exciting time for both Paul and Joanne.

World United mural Expo 86 Vancouver
Paul Ygartua at Expo 86 Vancouver

Joanne talks about how Paul designs his murals: “The first thing Paul does when approaching a mural, is choosing strong and powerful faces for the focal point so as to attract the viewer. Then he needs the faces looking in the right direction. Sometimes you find an excellent face but can not fit it in as it is not facing the right direction.  Each face takes on its own persona. It is quite difficult fitting in 16 faces on a large wall that is divided in two separate walls, to keep not only the balance, the perspective but your viewer’s interest, it is all very strategic and probably this part of planning is the most important.”

Paul says: “The balance is key, keeping the focus on the design so that both sides have equal power, structure and colour. By using certain headdresses and outfits, I created the balance and the continuity throughout the two wings of the mural which were at 90 degrees to each other forming the two sides of the pavillon, each side being 50 ft. long.”

The Expo 86 studies were all chosen by the Ygartuas.  First they were looking for the five races: AFRICAN  ASIAN  EUROPEAN NATIVE AMERICAN and OCEANIAN. Then of course as it was the UN and the emphasis was on “A WORLD UNITED”, they looked at the diverse regions of the world, making sure people would be able to recognize the different parts of the world represented.

Tala and Anton, Paul and Joanne’s two children represented Paul’s Basque heritage, and the white race. He was looking for interesting faces as well as some head gear to indicate the cultural origin. The colour of the head gear also helped bring the mural to life.


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