Who painted this? Decades-old mystery in N.B. basement sparks quest to find artist

·4 min read
Jen Parker has enlisted social media sleuths to help find out who painted this folk-art mural of Simms Corner on her mother's basement wall. (Jen Parker/Facebook - image credit)
Jen Parker has enlisted social media sleuths to help find out who painted this folk-art mural of Simms Corner on her mother's basement wall. (Jen Parker/Facebook - image credit)

For 15 years, a mystery has quietly lurked in the basement of an east Saint John home.

It's an intriguing puzzle: a hand painted, folk-art mural depicting a well-known west-side Saint John neighbourhood.

Its cheery tone is reminiscent of the works of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, its colours and whimsy evocative of British naive artist Gary Bunt.

And its sheer size — the mural measures more than one metre by one metre — makes it clear this artwork was a labour of love.

But by whom?

Jen Parker, whose mom owns the home that houses the mural, is obsessed with finding the answer to that question.

Parker has always known about the mural. But for years, it was partially hidden by boxes and other items, just another wall in a basement storage room.

Then her mom began readying the basement for a renovation, and that's when Parker got a full glimpse of the hidden treasure.

"I was intrigued by it," she said. "It's very cool."

Jen Parker/Facebook
Jen Parker/Facebook

Vintage portrait of a landmark intersection

She realized she was looking at a landmark west-wide intersection: Simms Corner. But Simms Corner as it used to be.

The painting depicts the red Centracare psychiatric hospital buildings, now gone. The sprawling white Simms paintbrush factory, now gone. A Stop sign, urging the mural's curiously driverless cars to hit the brakes, also now gone.

But why paint an iconic west-side landmark in an east-side home?

Perhaps, Parker thought, that was a clue.

Just after Christmas, she turned to social media sleuths for help, posting a photo of the unsigned mural and asking if anyone knew who'd painted it.

"Someone put a LOT of love into a folk rendition of this Saint John landmark," Parker wrote on her Facebook page. "Painted directly on the wall of my mother's basement."

Almost immediately, admirers started weighing in.

"That's Simms Corner!" many exclaimed.

"What a treasure to have in one's basement!"

"Wow … Centracare, Simms Brush Co, and Simms corner. What a find!"

"I got a few hits right away and then it just started to snowball," Parker said.

The post was shared dozens of times by curious Saint Johners.

But so far, all roads have led to dead ends.

New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession #: X13150
New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession #: X13150

Parker said the home's previous owner worked as a Saint John Transit bus driver, and his first name was Bob.

Which brings us to another mystery.

"Could it be Bob" who painted the mural, Parker wondered, or was it someone else? Is it possible that Bob's wife, or son or daughter, or even a talented friend, painted the scene?

The unsigned mural holds its key secret close, but lets a few tantalizing hints slip.

"If you look really close at the bus, there's a number on it," Parker said. A crisply painted 135.

Surely that must have been Bob's bus, and Bob's bus route?"

"It seems to me that if someone was going to put that much effort into it, they wouldn't put a random bus number," Parker said. "They would put their own."

Jen Parker/Facebook
Jen Parker/Facebook

Mural to be removed during renovation

Parker doesn't have her answer yet, but she's hoping the trail of clues and the curiosity of strangers will eventually lead her there.

Saint John Transit Commission manager Charles Freake might just be the one who does that.

Freake, who has been with the commission for more than 25 years, said he can think of a couple of drivers named Bob who might have painted the mural.

He's had a look at a photo of the mural, sent to him by email, and said he'll be reaching out to the drivers to see what he can find out.

"You've got me interested now," he said.

In the meantime, Parker is focusing on preserving the mural, which her mom had planned to remove during the renovation.

"I've convinced her to cut it out in one piece, and so I think she's going to give it to me," she said.

Parker said she's already had a lot of people ask about getting prints of the image, which doesn't surprise her. It's a cheery visual, a charming piece of art and a vintage moment in Saint John history.

"For me, this painting hits a lot of the feel-goods," she said.

Ultimately, she'd like to see the mural put on display somewhere in the city.

But first, she wants that one question answered.

"Mostly, I'm just really intrigued about who painted it," Parker said. "That's really the question I have."

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