It is 4:30 a.m. as I write this and the sun has not yet risen. Most of Squamish is still asleep, but let me tell you a story about magic in the town of Squamish while you are still dreaming.
Our town is often peacefully cloaked by mist at dawn. Are we in the Shire or just past Harry Potter’s 9 and 3/4 platform? Luckily, as the fog burns off, things become visible that aren’t always noticed. The work of Squamish-based creator, Liesl Petersen, comes to mind. A tradeswoman- come-muralist, she wears high-vis and a hard hat like the best of us and has sweet and spicy mustard in her veins to match. Her murals, here, there, and everywhere downtown, are a heart lift. Who could deny that the wings outside “Saha Eatery,” a project she made to encourage being the best version of one’s self, doesn’t make you feel like flying? You don’t even need a magic carpet.
Lunch hour: I sneak away from work to dine at Goemon Sushi on Second Avenue and am so happy to see the artist’s work again in the nooks and crannies of my passage through alleys with which Squamish is peppered. Petersen’s work speaks to our town’s “mythical creatures,” women, men, and bears included. Not to mention eagles. No bears will attack you while looking at her work, but make no mistake — her art has a nibbling voice. No silence there.
The first time I met Petersen was on a ladder. Let me clarify — she was on the ladder and I was about two metres below. Stencilling letters on the wall of a building in which I used to work, she exchanged ideas with me about murals and graffiti. Public access to murals is unlike the roped off experiences usually had by a gallery visit. It is friendlier and barrier-free as if someone is hooking you like a fish on a rod.
You see, Dear Reader, Petersen has caught Squamish and doesn’t believe in restrictions. Rather, she liberates the relationship between outdoor murals and the indoor “paint-up” in a way that all will understand. With COVID-19 changing our daily behaviour, it feels especially important to remain physically and emotionally connected to the depth of art. Ahem, even at a respectful distance.
My second conversation with Petersen started with her opinions on art in a more specific way. “Look — art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. And by the way, you can’t build muscle without pain,” she said.
I told her she reminded me of muralist Frida Kahlo.
“She was a woman whose truths were expressed through wall work, self-portraits, and ultimately, expansive public projects,” I said.
After this exchange, Petersen went on to discuss her formative years of painting; how she jumped from trades (thanks to her Papa) to murals and back, and what she would like to do going forward. Stay tuned as she is courageous in the style of some very famous female figures.
Petersen seems to be cut from a very broad cloth. She is flexible without the gymnastics. I am implying the “site-specific” work that each effort takes.
Murals are challenges because they force you to consider both exterior and interior environments. Outdoors, you could be interrupted by weather conditions and contractor deadlines. Inside, the base paint might not be right, demanding a re-paint. Petersen’s Cleveland Gardens project, located at Cleveland and Pemberton, might have gone awry. But she used the expertise gained by creating “Gradient Mountains” inside first. The tension between out and inside makes all the difference in precision, like an accurately snapped chalk line.
End of day: Petersen is a strong creative generalist with specific hands — a testament made through her output of public and personal art. Trust me, this artist’s art and idiosyncrasies will arrest you.
I, for one, would be willing to wear handcuffs to witness her work any day.
Rachel Anne Farquharson is a Squamish-based writer, curator, and art historian.