British Columbia

Winston Churchill, Emily Carr artifacts found hidden in Vancouver schools

Vancouver schools are dusting off a trove of hidden treasures, including a thank-you note from Winston Churchill and archived artwork by Emily Carr.

Works by Bill Reid, Gordon Smith, Robert Bateman also found as schools inventory art collections

Sir Winston Churchill Secondary school vice-principal Brent Schieman holds a letter from the school's namesake, written on the late politician's 90th birthday. Could it be worth something? (Jason Proctor)

The shaky handwriting reveals the signature of one of the 20th century's towering figures  Sir Winston Churchill — in a thank-you note to a school that bears his name in Vancouver.

"It's pretty cool. It's a snippet of history," said Brent Schieman, vice-principal of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary. "It's where we came from. It's the provenance of how everything has come to be."

The note, written on Churchill's 90th birthday, is just one artifact in a treasure trove uncovered by educators around the city responding to a call to unearth the Vancouver School Board's artistic and cultural possessions.

Emily Carr, Bill Reid, Robert Bateman

VSB spokesman Kurt Heinrich said the process started with a call to principals last summer to tally any paintings, sculptures and items of potential cultural value in their schools.

Principals told the Vancouver School Board that the art that was discovered included work by legendary West Coast artist Emily Carr. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

The list they came back with included works by Emily Carr and Bill Reid, and wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

"Over the years, some of the schools have acquired through various ways some really wonderful artwork," said school board spokesman Kurt Heinrich.

Heinrich said some were donated, some were purchased, some were bequeathed. But the board isn't anxious to pinpoint the locations of the pieces, for fear thieves might target them.

In one case, a painting by legendary West Coast artist Gordon Smith casually hangs in a school office, where it was donated by students in the 1960s. 

Art appraiser wanted

Now, the VSB is looking for someone to appraise and value the art spread around more than 110 of the district's schools and offices.

It recently put out a request for "opinions on how and what the board would need to do to achieve the development of a catalogue of the entire district-owned artworks and a valuation of each piece."

Heinrich said: "It's a really exciting time because there could be some art that is maybe 40 or 50 years old, and there potentially would be public interest in terms of viewing that art."

Haida artist Bill Reid, shown carving a sculpture, earned widespread recognition and a prominent position in the renaissance of Northwest native art. (Chuck Stoody/The Canadian Press)

The task is also to figure out if all the works are genuine, and what they might be worth.

"It's really exciting, but it also begs the question of, 'What are we going to do next?'" said Heinrich.

"Our educators are educators. They're not necessarily art appraisers, so we're not even entirely sure what we're dealing with."

Heinrich says the cash-strapped board has no plans to sell any of the artwork, but would like to know the value for insurance purposes.

In addition to paintings, he says, the VSB also has a formidable collection of totem poles and aboriginal art created by students.

Famous alumni include Jeff Wall, Bing Thom

Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh may not feature in any grad class photos, but some well-known artists and designers have attended the district's schools: Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas and Bing Thom to name just a few.

Magee Secondary School art teacher Mariette Smith says the work that aspiring artists produce in high school often still hangs in the halls.

"I've had students that have shown in New York, a student that started their own fashion line," she said.

"Sometimes what happens is the students go on to become art stars and then that is an absolute bonus, and they never come and ask for their art back, so you have this absolute masterpiece in your school."

Jeff Wall is a star in the international art world. He's also a former student of Vancouver's school system.

Schieman admits documents with Churchill's signature may not hold that much value; the former British prime minister lent his name to schools and universities around the world.

But he says digging through a school's archives can be fascinating for staff and students alike.

At another secondary school, he recalls stumbling across a dusty old collector's box full of every species of bird's egg from Manitoba, complete with provenance stretching back a century.

It may be worth nothing, he says. But you never know.


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