Wolves, playful otters, and more than a few whales have become permanent fixtures in Prince Rupert, no matter the season.
The life-like murals — some taking up the full side of buildings — were the brainchild of Glen Saunders, who wanted to add a splash of colour to brighten up the rainy city.
It was the spring of 1991 when Saunders visited Rupert to scope out a new location for a kitchenware store. He’d opened Kermode Trading, now Flying Fish, in Terrace the year before and had noticed a void in the market on the North Coast.
“Everybody told me to go to Smiles for lunch,” Saunders said. “When I got down to Smiles, it was hopping and I was sitting looking out the window. There was an empty building across the street, which is where Cowpuccino’s is now.
“I went back to Terrace and I thought, ‘God, why would I want to be anywhere but down here?’”
So he came back the same day, only to find out someone else had placed an offer. A couple of months later he learned the deal hadn’t closed. A few weeks later, Cow Bay Gift Galley opened with renovations still underway.
“It was a scramble. We had the roof on and that was about it,” he said with a laugh.
Cow Bay was a rougher area in those days, he recalls.
“It didn’t look anything like it looks today.”
Much of that is due to Saunders’s volunteer efforts.
Originally from Nanaimo, Saunders’s first venture was as part of his family’s logging business, which he is still a part owner of. Now he splits his time between Prince Rupert, Terrace, Nanaimo and the Interior, where his businesses are based. He travels often for work, with his pug Waldo never far away. When he’s not on the road, Saunders lists swimming, hiking, gardening and cooking as his favourite pastimes.
“We do a lot of entertaining,” Saunders said. “We cook with friends wherever we’re at, which is awesome.”
It was in Nanaimo where Saunders met Jeff King. The two had lost touch for almost two decades before Saunders was working on a new project. In 2011, Paint Prince Rupert began to spruce up fading buildings in the city with volunteer efforts, inspiring civic pride with every brush stroke. The season was ending, and after painting more than 30 businesses, Saunders wanted to do something special.
“A lot of Jeff King’s work is with wildlife, so that’s what we focused on,” Saunders said. “We just thought it was the perfect fit for the North Coast.”
He remembered driving in Nanaimo and passing one of King’s previous murals. He decided to call up his old friend and ask if King was still creating the large-scale paintings — and he was.
“A lot of people came out and helped us paint. I might have organized it and I was out there painting, but it was an amazing outpouring of people that helped make it all happen,” Saunders said.
The iconic larger-than-life murals aren’t the only decorative touch Saunders has inspired in Prince Rupert. For the 25th anniversary of Cow Bay Gift Galley, Saunders wanted to mark the occasion.
“I’m proud to be in business in Rupert for as long as I have and still am. The benches were a nice way, I thought, to give back to the community.”
Whale tail benches — also by King — were installed in three locations in Prince Rupert. Now, Saunders said there are three more that will hopefully find a home somewhere in the city this year. He also hopes to keep adding murals to Prince Rupert’s art scene.
“Prince Rupert has always been a place with a huge heart and lots of giving. It’s got a hundred-year history of that. It’s nothing new,” Saunders said. “This is just a continuation of that fabric of the community.”
“I like painting and I like facilitating, but I’m not very artistic, I’m afraid,” Saunders said of his own talents. What he’s learned, and wants to pass on, is “Nothing gets done by one person. You can have an idea, but my businesses wouldn’t succeed if it wasn’t for our whole team. It’s the same for the community work we did, it wasn’t just one person. It was many, many people who made it.”
Now, when he drives into Prince Rupert, Saunders still smiles when he sees the murals.
“It’s nice to be able to do something you think is going to have a lasting value in the community and give people a pride of place. If we can do more towards that, I’m all in.”