Dawson and the Harrison Effect

I’ve been enjoying a couple of relatively new books about the work of the latecTed Harrison. They are Ted Harrison Collected (Douglas & McIntyre) and A Brush full of Colour (Pajama Press).

The first one is a trade paperback collection of the 91 serigraph posters he created and sold. The second is a hardcover children’s book with about 37 pictures and sketches, covering his entire career.

We have quite a bit of Harrison around the house: several of the prints, book posters that were sent to me by the publishers, two tea mugs with prints on them, and several of his books. It’s all lively, uplifting stuff, which is what he wanted it to be.

“We should all try to spread a little happiness wherever we may be,” he once said. And he expressed similar sentiments the one time that I interviewed him for an article back when the Harrisons still lived in Whitehorse.

In 1989, when the latest edition of the Robert Service School opened its doors, Harrison was commissioned to create the poster accompanying this article. It’s one of my favourites. Typically, the colours have nothing to do with reality. In those days the school was institutional grey, as so many buildings once were in Dawson, though the tide had begun to turn.

Harrison’s colour choices had begun to affect (or maybe infect) the town a few years before, starting with the small buildings at the back lot of the Westmark Hotel, where they fronted onto 4th Avenue.

They had been the grey and white that was so typical of Dawson from the 1960s (or earlier) on. When we first visited the town with my in-laws in 1978 my father–in-law, who had been expecting great things, remarked that “the glory had departed.” Indeed, Dawson in living colour looked a lot like the black and white images in the film City of Gold.

A couple of years after we moved here we came back from a summer trip to Nova Scotia and, for some reason drove down 4th Avenue on the way home. Seeing the sudden blaze of colour we stopped to look. The contractor, a friend, came running out to our truck and camper, saying, “Don’t blame me. They made me do it.”

In truth, it was a surprise, but I rather liked it. Even then I thought of it as the Harrison Effect.

There was a fuss a few years later when Parks Canada, as part of its restoration of the Commissioner’s Residence, restored it to the golden hue it had worn in its heyday. By then it had been mostly white for years, and people complained.

On the other hand, when Holland America bought up the east side of the 5th Avenue block across from its original Westmark Hotel building and expanded, the first paint job on the expansion was a drab monotone, and folks were rather relieved when, a few years later, a variety of colours blossomed on both sides of the street.

Even the school got a new colour with time, when it was decided that a light beige might weather better and hold in less of the sun’s heat in the fall and spring.

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