Painting the Public Face of Dawson

Our mayor, Peter Jenkins, likes to say that moving the capital city to Whitehorse did Dawson a favour. We lost the politicians but got to keep the buildings.

Leaving aside the fact that this comment comes from a man who has been in politics almost continuously since the early 1980s, it is true we have a fair number of nice buildings in Dawson, and that the revival to the standard of care given to them since the flood of 1979 means we have an attractive town that people like to take pictures of in all kinds of weather.

What we don’t have, compared to Whitehorse, where there seem to be murals all over the place, is a lot of public art. This was not always the case.

Back in the antediluvian (that’s “before the flood”) days of the 1970s the late Sourdough Sue Ward teamed up with an American draft dodger named Joe Nickel and together they produced something like 130 signs for businesses and streets.

Sue herself painted a number of very large murals of northern scenes on the sides of buildings, where blank walls made a natural canvas. One building that no longer exists had a huge Northern Lights image on it, which I’m told is in storage somewhere.

Another home about a block from mine sported migrating caribou.

There aren’t too many of those things around anymore, and Dawson’s current Historic Building Code discourages them because they don’t fit into the 1896 to 1920 commemorative framework for the downtown core.

Griffiths Heating got themselves into a small bit of trouble a year or so back when they had Halin de Repentigny sketch a cartoon of a woman in old time garb standing next to a kitchen-style woodstove with their logo on it.

While I am in sympathy with many of the rules regarding Dawson’s historic look, I thought this particular illustration was tasteful and quite apt, improving the bland look of the west side of the building and advertising the business at the same time.

Griffiths has what is probably the most photographed wall in town on the other side of its building. That otherwise blank wall contains a verse from Robert Service’s “The Spell of the Yukon”, with a portrait of Service thinking about the poem beside it.

Klondike Kate’s restaurant is right across the street and I’ve seen a good many of its customers stop to snap a shot of that wall either before or after their meal.

A few years back the other kind of street “art”, of which there is also a lot in the capital city, made its way to Dawson, and “tagging” became a popular pastime amongst a certain age group. The Service wall was tagged, quite spoiling the effect of the verse.

Efforts were made to eradicate the scrawl and restore the original look of the homage, which had been there for many years, but it finally took the complete repainting of the building to do the trick.

The wall is once again an attractive memorial to Dawson’s bard, but there is just one problem with it. The artist didn’t get the verse quite right.

There’s a word missing from the next to last line, and because so many people know this verse so well, not too many seem to have noticed what it is. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but will say that this paragraph is filled with all sorts of hints as to what it might be.

Read the poem in the photo and see if you can figure it out. If you come up with the right answer, you can always post it in the comments section on the online version of this column.

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