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A 21st century touch to a gloomy portrait collection

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A detail from Joe Versikaitis's portrait of former Alberta Speaker Bob Wanner. Image: Legislative Assembly of Alberta/Flickr

It's not just Alberta's premiers who get their portraits hung in the dingy halls of the provincial legislature building in Edmonton, but the assembly's Speakers too.

Let it be said here first that the portrait of Bob Wanner, the most recent Speaker to depart that role, unveiled at the legislature yesterday, outshines any of the recent efforts on behalf of the parade of recent premiers who have stepped lightly through those halls these past few years.

Wanner, the former NDP MLA for Medicine Hat, accomplished this unexpected achievement by turning to a "sports artist" of all things -- one Joe Versikaitis of Calgary. This just goes to show one ought not to be snooty about such matters.

Versikaitis, a native of Venezuela, is nevertheless a former Hatter himself -- as residents of the sunny southeastern Alberta city are known. For its part, the Hat is best known for imperial literary icon Rudyard Kipling's famous observation that the small city has "all hell for a basement," a reference to the natural gas beneath the place that presumably fetched not that much less in 1907 than it does today.

But I digress. Whether Wanner turned to Versikaitis because of his artistic skill or because he was a former Hatter matters not. We Albertans have done well from his effort.

The gloomy gallery of 13 departed Speakers will benefit mightily from Versikaitis's lively touch, quite true to the former social worker who was his subject and far more engaging than the bleak 19th-century style favoured by most speakers' portraitists all the way through the 20th century and into the next one. This makes Mr. Wanner the first Speaker to have his portrayal grace the hitherto dreary collection in a manner in tune with the 21st.

As for the premiers' portraits, the posthumous painting of Jim Prentice unveiled in February is the most dignified since Ernest Manning's baleful image was hung. Some of the previous efforts commissioned by other recent premiers have led to the reasonable suggestion in this space that if Albertans are going to have to pay for these things, former premiers and Speakers ought not necessarily be allowed to pick their own portraitists. A couple are awful enough to frighten small children.

Wanner's portrait was not the only painting of a politician to be unveiled yesterday. So was the official portrait of former Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne, who was also Ontario's first female first minister.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who defeated Wynne in June 2018, unveiled the former Liberal premier's portrait at a surprisingly genial event last night at Queen's Park in Toronto, as the Ontario legislature is known.

Alert readers will recall that on her visit to the Alberta legislature in 2016, Wynne was heckled by former Wildrose Party MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who is unlikely to ever have his portrait hung in any legislature, anywhere.

Image: Legislative Assembly of Alberta/Flickr

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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