For a few moments, Vernon muralist Michelle Loughery felt a shred of the entrapment and helplessness that were a daily reality for her Ukrainian ancestors.
Raised up ten feet, at eye level with the face she was painting, Loughery’s forklift stopped working.
“I’m stuck up there, and for that split second, I had this sense of not being able to do what I needed to do,” Loughery says, stepping back and taking in the mural from afar.
The mural depicts the faces of a man and a woman, gazing out from behind a barbed wire fence. They represent the thousands of men, women and children of Ukrainian and European descent that were interned during the First World War. The man is inspired by a real person, one Loughery found in a photograph archived at the Vernon museum.
“He was arrested and interned in the Vernon camp,” Loughery says. “His only crime was being unemployed.”
Like many Ukrainians, the man had just arrived from overseas, responding to posters advertising a world full of opportunity. Loughery says it was the man’s piercing gaze that caught her own eyes at first. Grave and penetrating, she couldn’t get them out of her head.
At the man’s side is Loughery’s rendition of an Englishwoman who willingly entered an internment camp with her baby to join her Ukrainian husband.
Loughery’s own great grandfather was interned in Vernon.
“With this mural, I feel like generations of people are speaking through me,” she says. “I didn’t understand my Ukrainian heritage before. I didn’t understand why my Ukrainian grandparents were so harsh. Now I understand.”
She says it’s a hard mural to paint, second only to the one she finished right after her father died.
“I get my determination from my ancestors,” she says.
Not only is it a hard image to paint, it was a hard mural to get off the ground. Because it depicts a dark part of Vernon’s past, Loughery says it was more challenging to get funding. But now that it’s becoming a reality, people are eager to visit the work in progress and share their own stories.
“Vernon is brave to show this piece of history,” she says.
By putting it out in the open, she believes a healing process can finally begin.
“We want this to not just be about Ukrainians,” Loughery says. “This is about 150 years of interning people—the Italian, the Japanese, and the First Nations. We want to turn 150 years of human wrongs into human rights.”
Loughery is about halfway done the mural, the first in a series called the Sunflower Project. She will paint numerous paintings with the same theme in communities across Canada over the next few years.