She is roughly five metres high, four metres wide and her face is a little banged up from the hockey pucks fired at her over the years. But for the city of Winnipeg the gigantic portrait of the Queen is a cherished artifact and, after spending the better part of 17 years in storage, she is once again headed for public display.
Painted in 1979 to hang in the Winnipeg Arena, the portrait became emblematic of Winnipeg Jets home games during their first NHL incarnation from 1979 to 1996. After the team left town, the painting was removed in 1999 and cut into pieces for storage. A suitable home was never found.
When the ad “Wanted: Home for the Wpg Jets Queen Portrait” surfaced on the online classified advertising site Kijiji last August, it seemed like the latest indignity for Her Majesty’s likeness.
“Large area required to house this masterpiece,” the ad said, noting it weighs about 270 kilograms. “Incredible opportunity to drive people into your business with priceless advertising value.”
CN executives Jamie Boychuk and Mike Cory had been feted as hometown heroes last year when they brought the painting back to Winnipeg from Ontario, where it had been sent to hang in a museum that was never built.
I liked to line up pucks at centre ice and try to hit that god-awful, ugly portrait of Queen Elizabeth
But their attempts failed to find a taker for what until 2012 was the largest painting of Queen Elizabeth ever made.
The MTS Centre, home of the revived Winnipeg Jets, said it could not hang the portrait without significantly blocking the view of patrons in the upper level. Jets communication director Scott Brown told Yahoo sports there was no interest in the painting “for esthetic reasons, as well as practical.”
Amanda Von Riesen, a Winnipeg artist who helped arrange the return of the painting, was enlisted to clean and restore it. She said this week that apart from painting the frame gold and cleaning away a decade’s worth of dust, she was loath to mess with the painting by the late Winnipeg billboard artist Gilbert Burch.
The lips, she acknowledged, could use some work. They had been damaged at some point during storage and a touchup job did not get the colours right. But she could not bring herself to paint over “this amazing piece of history.”
That history includes a few puck marks from the days when bored hockey players — and in at least one case their children — used her for target practice. Bobby Hull has talked about how Jets players used to take shots from centre ice to try to hit the painting. His son Brett wrote in his biography that he and his brothers got to do the same after the team finished practice.
“I liked to line up pucks at centre ice and try to hit that god-awful, ugly portrait of Queen Elizabeth hanging on the arena wall,” he wrote, noting that he had a good shot but was “never good enough to nail the Queen.”
Von Riesen said the puck marks are part of what makes the painting special. She has heard complaints about the quality of the art, and the fact it celebrates an institution many consider outdated. But she views the portrait as an antique that reflects an era of the city’s history.
“It’s kind of priceless,” she said. “I don’t know if you can put a price tag on it.”
Christian Cassidy, who writes about Winnipeg history on his blog West End Dumplings, said the city’s attachment to the portrait is somewhat ironic.
“It’s our urban kitsch. It’s our Honest Ed’s sign,” he said in reference to the garish sign outside the Toronto discount store. “Even among fans of the painting, I don’t think you’d find too many people who’d say they love it. But it’s been around for decades, it’s seen a lot and it’s kind of quirky.”
On Wednesday, the Kijiji ad was changed to indicate a new home has been found, but Boychuk has not disclosed the buyer’s identity. The Jets reiterated this week that they have nowhere to hang the painting. The Winnipeg airport and city hall have said they are not involved in the purchase.
“We think the people of Winnipeg will be quite happy when they are able to see her hung up where she can be appreciated,” an aide to Boychuk said by email. “As for when that will be … You will have to stay tuned!”
Winnipeg Jets fans who remember seeing the giant portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at the old arena can see Her Majesty once again, albeit briefly, outside a downtown pub on Thursday.
Crews hoisted the 600-pound, 35-square-metre painting onto the outside south wall of The Pint on Garry Street, between Portage and Graham avenues, on Thursday afternoon.
Fans have until about 1 a.m. Friday to check out the portrait.
It’s the first time the painting has been on display since it was taken down from the rafters of the Winnipeg Arena before it was torn down.
Queen portrait way way down in the middle
Go Jets Heritage Classic