Art, Integrity and Linear Thought

Tim Heimdal, a Peace Country Icon
By Dymphny Dronyk

Tim HeimdalI have been involved in the arts community of the Peace Country for 10 years now, but had rarely run into local painter Tim Heimdal. I knew who he was – enough to recognize his pea coat and preoccupied gait as he strode through downtown Grande Prairie. As a gallery owner, I seldom saw him at any Openings. He preferred to soak up the art when the gallery was deserted. The staff knew to respect his quiet perusal.

To a newcomer like me, he was a kind of urban myth. He was the guy who had painted all those murals in Grande Prairie: the horses that fly down from the sky on the Beer Box, and the Homesteaders that resolutely stare down traffic at the main intersection.

The removal of his thirty-six hundred square foot “Kakwa Falls” mural on one of the city’s few tall buildings had caused controversy in 2002. The building’s owner had covered it up during the insulating and renovating of its property. To this day when I drive by I look up, expecting to get the emotional lift the azure majesty of the Falls used to deliver and flinch instead at the blank wall.

Consensus was that Heimdal had amazing talent, but was very shy, reclusive almost. People spoke of him with something close to reverence. If only he had a bigger ego and knew how to promote himself more, the myth went, he’d be famous.

I had worked with him a few years ago as a set decorator for the play “When the Reaper Calls.” Again, I hardly saw him – instead I saw the stage transformed from a black shell to a spooky cabin tucked back in the woods. His idiosyncratic design and absorption with each minute detail challenged and inspired me. In some unspoken way, it was clear that I was expected to make a forest to match. We proceeded to haul in a few truckloads of willows, annex most of the stairwells backstage and with a token nod to fire codes the “cabin in the forest” lived.Recently I worked with Heimdal on the set of “Barefoot in the Park”. I hoped it would be a serendipitous opportunity to try to understand the enigma of this Peace Country icon a little better. His reaction when I informed him that our magazine would like to do a feature story on him seemed to epitomize the myth. “Oh, thank you,” he said, followed by a long, awkward pause. “It just seems that there are far more newsworthy topics than me.”

Maybe not: giving boundless time and energy to your community and doing it so quietly that it is scarcely noticed is newsworthy. Bringing art to the public in the form of a mural that beautifies our everyday surroundings may in fact be the kind of act that should receive more attention.

These are no small gifts. Take the time required to build a set as an example – multiply it by the long list of plays Heimdal has worked on. A set designer starts by reading the play to get a sense of the structure and ambience that must be created.Mural - Beer BoxThen he comes up with a design that can be adapted for the various scenes. The design must reflect the shoestring budget reality of community theatre. The sets are built by a group of volunteers who scrounge materials from past productions and anywhere else they can scavenge the particular doors, or windows or banisters envisioned in the design. This motley collection of wounded parts is slowly puzzled together, with the original design continually evolving based on what materials are found.

Finally it is painted over by Heimdal and the paint weaves the magic, creates depth where there is none, tricks the eyes. The hollow black space of the stage is transformed. Wooden planks appear on floors. The bricks of a New York brownstone peek into the fifth floor skylight. The warm green of the front door seems to reflect the trees outside.

The collective effort that has gone into creating the set is one of many elements, along with stage production, props and costumes, etc, that theatre patrons hardly notice when it is good. Yet without the often-unsung efforts that happen before the play’s first night, the best efforts of cast and director would lack a dimension.

“Theatre-goers might not notice it consciously if the set was flat, or something was missing,” Heimdal muses. “But they may walk away from the play with a feeling that something isn’t quite right. And the same could happen when it is right. They walk away knowing it was good, but not aware that the set was part of that.”

For over twenty years Heimdal has devoted his talent to a wide range of plays in the Peace Country. He has been a mainstay of Second Street Theatre, the Downtown Clowns, the Royal Oak Players and Grande Prairie Regional College productions. He has also designed sets in Edmonton, Calgary and Nova Scotia.

“Partly the sets were about working on a larger canvas, about experimenting with three dimensional space,” he explains. “I’m not always very linear, and so it has been interesting to learn from the carpenters who actually build the set and who understand scale and proportion. What may look flat and dull in a drawing may be spectacular and larger than life in reality. One time we had to cut a foot off the bottom of a wall because the window was too high, especially next to one of the shorter actors whose head disappeared!”Stage Set

This is the kind of anecdote that Heimdal will share in his earnest way. When talking with him one never gets a sense of spin, that there is a public persona being cultivated to mask the real guy. He may take time to answer a question, with thoughtful pauses that punctuate the conversation, but the answers are guileless when they finally come.

This deliberation takes a quiet kind of confidence, and again underlines the enigma. For all the self-deprecating remarks he may make, an undercurrent of conviction also flows through. It suggests that Heimdal is an artist who paints what he feels, who lives life without artifice, mindful of the wounds that can be unwittingly inflicted upon our world.

“The original purpose of painting the Kakwa Falls mural was to “do it”, to take the challenge of a canvas that size and use it to make a big statement about what I could do, and about what was happening to our environment, the wilderness that we could lose,” Heimdal reflects. “But it developed into something much bigger. It became part of the community. It belonged to them, it wasn’t mine anymore in a way. People came from elsewhere just to see the mural.”

The Kakwa Falls mural was painted in 1986, sponsored jointly by AGT (now Telus) and the City of Grande Prairie.While it wasn’t Heimdal’s first mural, it was certainly the largest project he had undertaken. In the end it was a labour of love.

“I knew the Herculean task was doable,” he says. “I wasn’t out to get rich, though it did lead to more jobs. The budget was $6500, for my time and all materials. The scaffolding was donated, and so was the time it took the crew to set it up. I ended up working for about $2 an hour that summer!”

“The 8 x 8 concrete panels on the building created a natural grid, so I made a small painting, and then made a “map” of it. It took many trips up and down the scaffolding to get the right perspective or the right shadow. Up that close you just can’t see it the same way.”

In the fall of 2001, Heimdal was informed that the mural would be covered up by the next spring. It was inevitable, for practical purposes. No mention was made of either saving or resurrecting the painting after the renovation project was complete. Efforts were made in the community to have it preserved instead of covered up, but this was not possible. Telus made the building ready for a potential new mural with $20,000 worth of specially-designed “paint-able panels”.

Homesteaders MuralThe blank panels now wait for the community’s next move. Making the building beautiful again will take a concerted effort by a focused group of people. “It raised a lot of questions for me,” Heimdal admits. “About Intellectual Property, about where does respect for an artist or art begin and end. There were other questions of integrity. What if Michelangelo was still alive and it involved covering up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Every effort would be made to preserve the integrity of the art and the artist.

“Last year, there was a similar controversy in Stony Plain when they tore down the Town Hall that had one of my murals on it. In that case, after the building came down, a commitment was made by the town of Stony Plain to the community to redo the mural at a different location. But Stony Plain recognizes that their mural project is an asset to the town, part of their economic development, perhaps modeled on the success of Chemainus in B.C.”

And then in his typically shy way he adds, “Not that I am comparing myself to Michelangelo. I just know that the improvements in my skill and technique would allow for an even better image than it was. The depth and colour that had been lost over time could also be restored.”

The “Kakwa Falls” mural did lead to more murals, just as he had hoped. Heimdal makes a living painting murals. His art enhances communities all over Alberta, from Hythe to High River, Redwater to Calgary. His paintings and murals adorn hospitals, schools, nursing homes and airports.

Perhaps there is some truth to his minimalist marketing. His reluctance to be photographed for this magazine or the fact that we had to cajole him to get images of his work to accompany the article, run counter to the artists who provide a weighty sales package of their work. But then again, if the projects come to you, why would you need to swim too much in the shark infested waters of marketing?

“Working on a larger scale like murals makes art more accessible to a broader audience. You don’t have to see a mural between 9 and 5, or have to be a gallery-goer. It is public art that still has a personal and introspective nature,” Heimdal states. “And the work in the private context of the studio may make a different statement.

Dinosaurs“Book jackets, illustrations, film and video work and graphic design summarize all the diverse ways Heimdal’s art flows into the community. A conversation that begins with a simple question about set design meanders along like a quiet creek and ends up posing philosophical questions about the purity of visual representation. Should an artist paint what he sees, or should what he feels also influence the image?

One is left feeling that Heimdal’s questions will never really leave him alone, that there is an haunted undercurrent that will continue to carry him to new and deeper quests.

“What are you working on next?” I ask him. “Well, I’m not sure,” he replies in that measured, soulful way, as if maybe there are so many answers to that question that he has to really consider which is the safest one. “I have to do a mural in Hythe, on the Town Hall. It was written into the estate directive of Olive Stickney, who was sort of the Queen Pin of town.”

And this is another one of those bizarre stories of serendipity that sound almost too colourful to be true. A woman tiny in stature and enormous in will, who spent most of her 90 odd years championing a dying rural town, commissions a painting by an artist who in his way, echoes her volunteerism. Arta Juneau organized an auction last year to raise money for the mural. Among such things as yards of gravel, motor oil and cases of pickled beets, they auctioned off Olive’s legendary collection of flamboyant hats. If that doesn’t prove you’ve arrived as an artist, I’m not sure what does.

Many shared cups of coffee and long and interrupted phone calls with Heimdal have gone into the research of this article. In the end, the enigma endures: the reticent artist whose bold murals are in demand – the shy guy, who is also a clown. I realize that perhaps the most powerful thing of all about Heimdal is that he is an icon for authenticity. Being a success for being yourself – now that is something to aspire to.


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