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Artist hopes update to legion mural inspires youths to better understand Canadian history

Artist Xinzheng Liu spent more than a year researching the mural before he started updating it in May and completed it in September.

A Moose Jaw artist who updated the mural on the Royal Canadian Legion building hopes his work inspires the community — especially youths — to have more appreciation for Canadian history.

When China-based Jin Cheng International Real Estate Ltd. bought the 95-year-old building in May 2020 after Branch No. 59 sold its home — it’s now a tenant — the company asked Xinzheng Liu to enhance the painting on its east exterior wall. 

Liu, 42, moved to Moose Jaw from Beijing in April 2019 and jumped at the opportunity to contribute. While he has been an artist for 23 years, this was his first mural project. 

“I feel very excited to come here. I feel good to do something for Moose Jaw. It is a lot of meaning,” Liu said.

Liu, his wife Xiaoran Wang, and friend Terry Tian talked about the mural after it was installed recently. Liu repainted the mural on 21 sheets of hardboard, which were then attached to the building. 

Tian translated for Liu throughout the conversation.

A year of research

Liu conducted a year’s worth of research about the mural, Canada’s military exploits, and the weather in Moose Jaw before proceeding, he explained. 

The weather was top of mind because of how much it changes here. So, after searching, he found a hardboard — similar to outdoor advertising signs — composed of aluminum and plastic that could withstand temperatures to minus 50-degrees Celsius, and found paint called All-Surface Enamel. 

Liu and Tian also collected plenty of information about the original painting, its background, and who painted it. 

“It’s the power of history,” said Liu. “There is a very special feeling when I was doing research because, at the beginning, I didn’t really know much detail about Canadian history. So, when I was doing this, I was shocked about how great of history we had before.

“After reviewing all the battles that we had before, I feel very excited about this. I was passionate about this.” 

Liu and Tian are both interested in war history but mostly about the United States’ exploits. However, the more they searched, the more they discovered that Canada was involved in many important battles, such as invading Juno Beach during the Second World War. 

“It touched us emotionally because we didn’t know this before,” said Liu, noting they have a new appreciation for Canadian military history. “We feel impacted. Like, ‘Oh man, Canada has such a great history, and detailed.’”

Adding paint to panels

After a year of research, Liu created sample drawings in May 2021 before starting the mural for real in the summer. It then took him till mid-September to finish. 

Liu and Tian felt that the community appreciated their efforts, while they were thrilled to have the chance to complete it. They also received plenty of support from the veterans, many of whom gave them two thumbs up. 

The biggest concern Liu had was the materials he would use and how long they would last. He looked at other murals around the community for inspiration before deciding on panels. He then determined the number he would need and how he would attach them to the building. 

Another challenge was determining what the images in the mural were. After many years outside, they were not as crisp as they once were. That is why he and Tian looked everywhere for inspiration, including in books, online, and talking with people who knew the mural’s history.

“We had lots of meetings (with legion executive members),” said Liu. “I showed them the first samples. They produced great ideas and pictures to help improve and (make) lots of adjustments.”

Legion reaction

Roy LaBuick, legion president, had nothing but positive comments about the updated painting.

“The mural looks really nice. It stands out as you come down High Street,” he said. “It adds a little life to the building … . (Liu) did a very nice job of it.” 

Changes for clarity

Some changes Liu made included increasing the clarity of the images, especially to the Vimy Ridge monument, the memorial cross, the torch, and other visuals about the First and Second World wars. He added pictures to highlight Canada’s role as United Nations peacekeepers and made the poems “In Flanders Fields” and “In Flanders Now” readable.

He also inserted pictures of the poems’ authors, Lt.-Col. John McCrae and Edna Jaques, respectively. 

“All the detail he made is based on real history. That’s how serious he is about the history,” said Tian. 

Joy of the project

With a chuckle, Liu said there were many aspects of updating the mural that he enjoyed. This included researching Canada’s role in both world wars and inserting enough details so younger people would understand. 

He noted that teens understand U.S. history better than Canadian history, so he wanted to change their viewpoint.

“In the Second World War, Canada sent 1.1 million men to the war. (Roughly) 42,000 couldn’t come back,” said Liu. “There were also over 700 Canadian Chinese soldiers too (who fought). There are a lot of interesting details.”

There were many other details that Liu wanted to add but couldn’t, Tian said. If another opportunity arises to paint a mural — especially near the armoury on Main Street — Liu would like to create one focused on the military. 

Liu added that he is “very satisfied” with how the mural turned out.