Writer Jane Urquhart Interprets Airports Mural

by J. Pinsent

Canadian author Jane Urquhart wrote a book The Night Stages inspired by the mural at the Gander Airport terminal painted by artist Ken Lochhead’s Flights and Its Allegories. The painting is central to her novel about a woman who is fleeing a relationship and her life in County Kerry, Ireland, when she becomes stranded in Gander airport over a three day period because of adverse weather. She has made it quite clearly that the mural at Gander had motivated her to write this novel. In a 2015 interview with Toronto Star writer Debora Dundas, she explained why.

Excerpted from the interview with Jane Urquhart

I’ve always been interested in visual art in novels and I’ve always been interested in the visual in novels. I realized that a mural of all works of art is something that is read from left to right. It really is a narrative in itself. Whether it’s meant to be or not is another discussion. But essentially that’s what we do when we look at a mural. And I thought normally what we would do with a mural in an airport is we would just rush by it on our way to somewhere else — but my character would be forced to spend three days looking at it.

The other reason I think the mural is in the novel is because I’m extremely fascinated by the whole notion of making art. And at the risk of sounding precious, that’s really what I’m trying to do when I’m writing a novel. So this time it felt as though I had a kind of animating spirit walking alongside me making a work of art at the same time I was attempting to make a work of art.

I wanted to take a look at Ken’s development as an artist and his travels because, of course, the painting that he’s doing is all about flight and all about travel and arrivals and departures. And because I was as fascinated by this crazy Irish bicycle race as I was, I knew the novel was going to have to be parallel stories that move toward a common but not a tidy end.

Young Ken was semifictional in the sense that I did of course know some things; he was my husband’s friend, and I knew his work and I have always admired his work. So I was able to take little bits of biographical, factual information about him and then expand on that.

The mural was done (1957/58) when he was quite young. He was commissioned to do it at the time of the building of the new Gander terminal, which was built by the Canadian government in order to welcome the rivers of the world and, of course, within two years the planes overflew it. So that’s another thing that fascinated me: this modernist terminal sitting there practically untouched with this beautiful mural in it, that was meant to be seen by millions of people that really has been seen by next to no one.

Interestingly the Canadian government, when it decided to commission Ken to do the mural, made it quite clear that, while they wanted the mural to be about flight, they didn’t want there to be any aircraft in the mural. And I think that he was very on board with that idea in that he knew that the mural would be dated in a way that it ought not to be since it would be in a situation where the aircraft arriving and departing would be constantly changing over the years; but of course things changed so much they didn’t arrive and depart anymore.

There are a lot of children in the mural, which I found kind of lovely and also there’s a lot of birdlike forms, one of which kind of looks as if it might be the Concord but, of course, this was long before the Concord was even thought of. A lot of forward momentum I guess for want of a better word . . . and you think of the time that it was painted it would have been during the Cold War so people would have been very frightened of missiles and some of the birdlike forms that are rushing through the painting to have a kind of missile like feel to them. But then what’s on the ground? There’s a sense of shoreline, and a much slower kind of arrival and a much slower kind of departure with children holding flowers and blossoming trees and fruit, and even a kind of nursery rhyme look to it in places.

I think I did bring that kind of sensibility to the story. First of all, there is the sense of landscape that is so dominant in the mural; as always I’m very fascinated by landscape and how it affects the human beings who have to work with it and live with it and walk through it. And that is so Irish and, of course, (the landscape of) Kerry became a very big feature in the book.

Also that there was the unbelievably ferociously speedy form of travel being examined to a certain extent in the mural — and then the bicycle being almost the opposite of that, in that when you’re on a bicycle you’re very much on the ground, you are very much on the earth and you are very much passing through the landscape.

So I felt that having those two things running side by side was kind of exciting.

Jane Urquhart

submitted by GAHS

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