Back in the mid-1980s, an air force pilot drove from CFB Cold Lake to West Edmonton Mall so he could scuba dive in the submarine pool. The intriguing historical nugget is now part of the WEMories project (https://wemories.ca/), an interactive portion of an ambitious tribute to the 42-year-old mega-mall.
"There are some real gems in there. This one was really remarkable," said Christine Wiercinski, the graphic artist compiling short stories for a foldout map she will put together as part of THE MALL art exhibit (https://mitchellartgallery.macewan.ca/) at Edmonton's Mitchell Gallery.
As of late January, the Edmonton woman had received about 70 submissions and says she considers the scuba dive story a highlight. Memories of the mall submissions are being accepted until Feb. 19. See wemories.ca for details.
While the complete story can be viewed along with other WEMories on a screen at the Mitchell Gallery, here's a glimpse of the offering from Matthew O.; "Found a shopping cart to carry all our gear and arrive at the tank for 0630. After a short safety briefing, we suited up and stepped in. The only real rule was ‘don’t ride the shark’, a rubber shark on a track that appeared through a bubble curtain to frighten the sub riders. We weren’t allowed to collect any of the coins. Saw the ship hull up close, swam under the row boat. It was a super way to spend an early morning. Out by 0730 just as the early mall goers were coming in."
Wiercinski, who grew up near the mall in the early 1990s, was able to realize her dream of putting together a WEM-centric map when she heard about THE MALL exhibition.
She's a friend of Carolyn Jervis, the co-creator of the exhibition and director of the Mitchell Gallery.
"I approached her and told her about my idea and she said yes," said Wiercinski.
Wiercinski plans to create the WEMories map similar to one she put together in 2020 about the City of Edmonton. (https://veekee.ca/Edmonton-Is-Fine-Map)
"This project is not about shopping. It's an art and a heritage project." she said, adding, "It's such an eco-system for so many different people. It needs to be celebrated outside of just a shopping mall."
That idea has resurfaced in recent weeks with the news that the huge, twisty MindBender roller coaster, which created memories for many youngsters visiting the mall since the 1980s, is closing for good.
Jervis reinforced that theme, saying, "Everyone has a mall story. This is not chronological. This is more of a nostalgic relationship to the mall."
The Mitchell Gallery director has many favourite WEM memories but said, “The big thing for me was going to the mall with my grandmother and having an Orange Julius.”
Jervis, who has teamed up with co-curator and artist/photographer Hannah Quimper-Swiderski, said interest in THE MALL, which runs until April 1 is unprecedented.
"It's been pretty wild. We had triple the number of people that we normally have out for an exhibition opening," she said, adding, "It really shows that people want a home for those stories.”
Including Wiercinski, there are 10 artists featured with works dating from 1986 to 2022.
One exhibit is an eight-minute video played on a tube TV called ‘Death by Chocolate’ by the late American visual artist Dan Graham. Drawing on footage shot between 1986 and 2005, the video is described as ‘a coldly beautiful view of mall culture; its architecture, its consumer public and its unique aesthetic world.’
There is also a wood and clay piece called ‘Self-Contained’ by Alberta artist Jude Griebel depicting a series of WEM landmarks, including a nod to the creatures in the once-thriving dolphin tank.
"Among all this business and chaos of the mall we have this tribute to Howard the dolphin," said Jervis, referring to the last dolphin to perform at WEM before the show ended due to complaints from animal rights activists.
When asked for a reaction to THE MALL exhibit, a WEM spokesman said, "Memories are made at West Edmonton Mall and we’re excited to see our community sharing these experiences and the impact that WEM has had on their lives."