Imperial Oil’s remarkable contribution to the arts

Assistant curator Sonya Blazek unveils an important piece of art history Imperial Oil has donated to the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery, on exhibit until April 23. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

One of the best examples of mural painting in Canadian art history is at the centre of a new Imperial Oil donation to Sarnia-Lambton’s public art collection.

The donation includes six sketches and two large cartoons by prominent Canadian artist York Wilson. Their dollar value isn’t being disclosed but the story they tell about the oil industry’s history and the important chapter they represent in the company’s past is priceless, says Lisa Daniels, curator at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG).

The donation to the gallery’s permanent collection was unveiled March 23 with dozens of Imperial representatives and art enthusiasts in attendance.

“We all live here and want to see a vibrant community,” said local chemical plant manager Dave Luecke.  “I think a vibrant arts scene is part of that community.”

In the mid-1950s, as Imperial Oil was building its new Toronto headquarters, the company commissioned York Wilson to design and paint an enormous mural in the expansive foyer at 111 St. Clair Ave. West.

Wilson spent two years researching and studying the story of oil before presenting Imperial’s board of directors with two cartoons – the art term for a full-size drawing made as a study for a larger painting.

It took board members less than 20 minutes to examine the cartoons and approve the project, a mammoth mural incorporating two panels, each 32 feet by 21 feet.

Imperial’s former offices have since been converted to condos, with shops are on the ground floor and public access to Wilson’s unique mural.

The mural is historically designated and remains a permanent part of the building, said JNAAG’s assistant curator Sonya Blazek.

But thanks to Imperial’s donation, Wilson’s preparatory work depicting the story of oil in Canada is, fittingly, now in Sarnia.

Blazek noted the artist even worked with Sarnia’s Imperial Oil research lab to create dry pigments that would be long-lasting.

The local unveiling coincided with 14 other art donations across Canada from Imperial Oil.

The company has built an open-concept headquarters in Calgary with fewer walls to display its extensive art collection, said Luecke. Some of it has been auctioned, resulting in a $784,000 donation to United Ways across Canada, with the United Way of Sarnia-Lambton receiving $125,000 of that, he said.

In total, Imperial donated $6 million from its art collection and art sale, Leucke said.

Imperial has collected art for more 70 years, primarily supporting Canadian artists.  The National Gallery of Canada recently received a Lawren Harris and several other paintings from Imperial Oil.

Interestingly, Imperial was among the local industries responsible for donating a Lawren Harris called Spring on the Oxtongue River to Sarnia’s permanent collection in 1956.

The York Wilson artwork is the first local donation specifically from Imperial Oil.  However, in the 1950s a Sarnia Industries Art Fund created with contributions from local industries including Imperial was used to purchase 113 works.

The gallery’s permanent collection now has about 1,500 pieces.

A series of four exhibitions running until Aug. 12 pays tribute to the artists, collectors and corporations that helped build the gallery’s collection.

The York Wilson exhibit runs until April 23 and is the first in the Share the Passion: Gifts of Art series.