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The story behind the 'creative cowboy' who painted the Irricana Hotel mural

Welch's granddaughter Pauline “Polly” Sink said she hopes the mural will help spark some interest among the younger generation in her grandfather’s work and inspire others with his sensitive, yet tenacious spirit.  

Formerly hidden away inside the dilapidated Irricana Hotel lies an original artwork dating back to the generation of the early pioneers.

The hotel has since been sold to a Calgary resident who is keen to restore it (and the mural) to its former glory. 

Initially, the historical resting stop offered its patrons rooms, a tavern, restaurant, and Irricana’s first telephone exchange. It also holds a collection of old murals painted on the tavern walls around 1925 by Guy Martin Welch, who was an impressionist and modern artist of the early west. 

Welch was born in 1886 and was raised on the fringes of the Rosebud Reservation in Nebraska. According to a memoir written by his daughter Maggie Sink in 1972, he had an intimate knowledge of cattle drives, Indigenous lore, and early settlers of the West.  

“A love for the scenic grandeur of the open plains and prairies guided his brush to depict the things he knew and loved the best,” read the memoir.  

Welch’s paintings featured cowboys, Indigenous peoples, buffalo, cavalry and the “real old wild west,” shared his daughter. Some of his works depict the Calgary Stampede and the Alberta prairies at the turn of the last century.  

His father was a horse trader who took his two sons with him to Alberta in 1906.  

“He took out a homestead but never had the chance to work it out,” Sink recalled. “Guy remained in Alberta for the next 20 years.” 

Nicknamed “Speedy” Welch by his friend Bill Stokes, he painted many western scenes for some of Hollywood’s then-famous western stars such as Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard.

It was Gibson, whom he met in Calgary during the Stampede, who talked him into heading to California to continue to work as a commercial artist.  

“Welch was a prolific artist – his work critically acclaimed throughout the nation and sought after by those who knew and loved the real West,” continued the memoir. “Yet amazingly enough, he never had any formal art education.” 

The artist mixed his own pigments and learned his techniques through the necessity of an economic depression. He also industriously put together his own frames and painted at long hours to support his family (he'd spent up to 18 hours at a stretch at his easel).  

It was Gibson who was quoted as saying, “When Guy sits down to draw a horse, you’re lucky if it don’t git up and run right off the paper!” 

Welch retired in the 1950s, but he continued to sketch, paint, and illustrate short verses of poetry until he passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958.  

“He always said he would go with his boots on, and he did,” concluded the memoir. “Within five days, he was gone at the age of 72.” 

During his career, the famed western painter left a trail of murals and original artwork from Canada through to the Salinas Valley in California, and as far south as Mexico. The Irricana Hotel's mural is one of few depression-era murals remaining on the walls of bars, hotels, and other establishments in North America.  

Welch's granddaughter Pauline “Polly” Sink said she hopes the mural will help spark some interest among the younger generation in her grandfather’s work and inspire others with his sensitive, yet tenacious spirit.  

“I find his story very inspiring because of the incredible hardships he endured as a child,” she told the Rocky View Weekly. “Trying to make his way in Alberta … his dad died the same year he moved to Alberta, so he was just 20 years old. They had a hard time just making enough to live in the west during the depression. 

“He just seemed to take it in stride and always had this sense of humour about things.” 

Following his passing, Welch left his family with a collection of his artwork, including oil paintings and more lighthearted sketches on newspaper. 

Sink recalls her grandfather leaving his artwork on old newspaper and in letters to friends and family. She cherishes drawings of the family homestead in Nebraska, and other western scenes featuring fine details of his life in the early west.  

“He was just a very perceptive and sensitive kind of person to all the events of life,” she shared. “And he had that wonderful sense of humour... he found humour in all kinds of absurd things and everyday things and that was something I think a lot of people saw in him.”  

She said with the upcoming hotel restoration, she hopes people can see and appreciate her grandfather's mural once again. Sink said she had the opportunity to view the mural in person when her mother took her to the Irricana Hotel in the late 1980s.  

“They were shut away for so many years,” Sink explained. “Maybe [seeing them] will spark interest and they can become curious about it and learn about it themselves … to get an understanding of how different that life was.” 

Sink shared that in her lifetime she has seen a lot of change, but remarked the murals are a testament to a simpler, yet oftentimes tougher way of life.  

“The world is just a different place than when I grew up,” she remarked. “It seems that whatever you grew up with is what seems normal [to you]. I really hope that people will get the chance to look at his art.” 

She said for years that she was afraid the building would be destroyed, and the artwork would be lost forever.  

“I’m really happy to know that people are going to be able to see those [murals] again and they won’t be lost, because I think most of his murals are gone with the passage of time,” she shared. “It’s such a unique thing to have there, so it’s very exciting that it’s coming back to its former glory. 

“It’s been hidden away and now... it was meant to be seen; it was meant for people to enjoy.” 

Sink recalled her father died when she was very young and her grandparents (including Welch) came to live with them. She remembered her grandfather was a fun and jovial person who brought light to their home during a difficult time.  

“Grandpa was the most fun person and he had a way with little kids, because he had that kind of spirit in him – a child-like spirit,” she said.  

She added he also had a resilient pioneering mentality that got him through some tough times including periods of extended illness.  

“Whatever comes, you just deal with it and keep going,” Sink explained. “I’m hoping people can read his story and understand the hardships he went through that would encourage people these days too.” 

Sink said her grandfather wasn’t just the “cowboy drifter” that some people envisage him to be, and that his sensitive spirit guided both his work and his life. 

“I think he was a deeply sensitive person and he covered that up with going to all these different towns to paint and he had to be sociable and jolly to get these jobs,” she said. “Nobody saw that other side, inside. 

“Some of the other great western painters came from back east and came to the cowboy life, they weren’t born into it. [Welch] was a real western.” 

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