Artist about town: retelling history in murals

This Alberta painter has worked in a variety of mediums, but it’s the larger-than-life murals that keep him the most busy

RED DEER —John Ellenberger of Little John’s Custom Painting is a sign painter by trade, a mural artist by request and a teacher by default. Many of his murals portray history in larger-than-life colour — a lesson in from where and how far we’ve come.

“Everyone wants to show the history of their town,” says Ellenberger.

He estimates that he has completed about 30 murals during his 40-year career.

He’ll soon deliver a completed mural to Petawawa, Ont., his hometown.

“I was an army brat,” he says.

The artwork portrays the former General Panet High School, where Ellenberger graduated in 1971. It sits disassembled on the floor of his studio, in eight four-by-eight foot panels, wrapped, stacked, and ready to go. He’ll reassemble and affix the mural to an exterior wall of the new Canex SuperMart, a military retail and services store built on the school site.

Earlier this fall, Ellenberger installed his Clydesdale horse parade mural in downtown Lacombe, Alta. His reference was an archival photo taken in the city’s earlier days. Clydesdales were a common draft horse breed used for fieldwork at the Lacombe Research Station.

Another Alberta mural is the Stephenson Livery Stable, affixed to a billboard in Blackfalds. Livery stables provided essential services in the days when horses were the primary mode of transportation. Everyone arriving in town needed to attend to their horse or rent one.

This mural depicts the Stephenson Livery Stable in Blackfalds, Alta., which was an essential community service in the town between 1903 and 1926. With horses being the primary mode of transportation in the early 20th century, the livery stable was a busy place. Horses and wagons were tended to and rented out. The livery man was often a blacksmith as well, providing wheel repair and farrier services. | Maria Johnson photo

With the advent of the automobile, Stephenson Livery Stable, which was built in 1903, was replaced by a garage with gas pump in 1926.

Ellenberger spray paints the murals on Dibond substrate panels, a polyethylene core sandwiched between aluminum sheets. He says the substrate is easier to work with than painting onto wood or cement walls. The art is created at his acreage home studio, an old converted pig barn, or weather permitting, outdoors on the edge of the coulee bordering the yard.

The finished mural receives a protective layer of industrial matte clear coat.

“It’s very durable,” says Ellenberger. “The painting will last the life of the building.”

The matte clear coat also allows any vandalized graffiti to be easily removed.

It’s not just air-brushed murals Ellenberger paints but it’s what he does most.

“It pays the bills,” he says.

The opportunities to put brush to canvas and explore his own personal style are less than he’d like.

“I’m too busy painting to paint.”

Nevertheless, the personal works, including portraiture and surreal visionary art, have gathered throughout Ellenberger’s home. Many of these pieces are water-based acrylic, although he describes himself as a multi media artist.

Close to his heart is his portrait of his father, now deceased.

“When my sister saw that painting she couldn’t even look at it. She cried.”

His painting Earth Speaks shows ghostlike Indigenous people paddling a canoe over still waters. A treed islet with hidden totem images forms the background.

Ellenberger’s interest in drawing started in the early 1960s when he attended Sunday school at Oromocto, N.B.

“There was an art teacher there. He’s the guy that got me going.”

At about age 12, he received a Jon Gnagy Learn To Draw kit as a Christmas gift, after regularly watching the well-known artist on TV.

“He really inspired me.”

Ellenberger says his most important teaching from Gnagy was perspective, the technique for creating the illusion of depth and space on a flat surface.

“That’s what makes it easy to do large murals.”

After high school, Ellenberger took creative arts at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., followed a few years later by a commercial arts course at Assiniboine College in Brandon.

He was hired right out of school there at a sign shop.

“That’s where I learned to do the hand lettering.”

Over the years, Ellenberger moved back and forth between east and west: Saskatoon, Calgary, Sudbury, following work, and the ebbs and flows of the economy.

Eventually he settled in central Alberta in 2008.

“Ontario was dead,” he says.

The crash in the economy that year worked in his favour.

“All the oilfield people had time off. They spent their money. Guys were buying bikes, which they wanted airbrushed. I was pretty busy.”

Ellenberger, a motorcycle enthusiast himself, does airbrush art on bikes in winter.

Technology has taken over much of his work. Vinyl decals and stickers are the norm.

“Computers have stripped sign painters of their income.”

Murals are increasingly computer generated these days as well. He’s OK with that and looks forward to retirement.

“I’m too old to start over and I don’t want to be going up and down the scaffolding for too much longer. Then I can just paint for myself.”

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