Small museum boasts big-time collection

Shawnigan Lake artist E.J. Hughes, who painted scenes of West Coast beauty loved around the world, wanted art to be accessible to everyone.

Shawnigan Lake artist E.J. Hughes, who painted scenes of West Coast beauty loved around the world, wanted art to be accessible to everyone.

It’s a goal that lives on right in the late painter’s hometown of Shawnigan Lake, through a very special small gallery of Hughes’s sketches and memorabilia.

“E.J. lived here for over 20 years here in Shawnigan Lake and did the bulk of his career paintings while he lived here,” explained Shawnigan Lake Museum curator Lori Treloar. “Shawnigan Lake was really where his heart was.”

Hughes was born in North Vancouver in 1913 and partly raised in Nanaimo. He served as an official war painter during the Second World War and went on to eventually settle in Shawnigan Lake.

The Hughes pocket gallery is tucked away in the corner of the museum, and draws devoted admirers who appreciate drawings from the prolific painter, including sketches of his mother and sisters, an early drawing from before he became famous, furniture and items from his home. There are also unique quotes under each work.

“Rather than me trying to describe any of his work I went back and pulled out quotes that he had said about his own work. So in this space are his words that relate to his paintings,” Treloar explained, paraphrasing one in which Hughes jokes about how his love of taking his small boat around the lake was distracting him from his painting.

The gallery began with a drawing of the lake and Mount Baldy that Hughes did for the front of the Shawnigan Lake community history book in 1966.

“So he wanted the historical society to have that drawing and the two sketches that he’d done sort of as the lead up to the drawing. So that was the lead-up to the collection,” Treloar explained.

Pat Salmon, who acted as an aide, friend and biographer to Hughes and helped him liaise with the public and material aspects of his career also contributed to the collection.

“Knowing that we had the other drawing she donated several sketches and his art school diploma,” said Treloar, who has been curator of the museum since 2005.

After Hughes’ death in 2007 his extended family then passed along two pieces of art and furniture from his house.

The museum is currently talking with an architect about an expansion, partly to enlarge the Hughes gallery.

“We’re in the process of hoping to do an expansion to the museum and one of the things will be to make the E.J. Hughes gallery a little larger,” Treloar said, adding that though the gallery has maintained a somewhat low profile it generated great excitement when it opened and six tremendously valuable original Hughes oil paintings were brought by patrons to showcase for the opening.

The Hughes sketches and drawings on the wall represent a unique valley treasure on a world-class scale, Treloar said.

“The significance of this is quite huge, because we’re a little museum and there’s nowhere anywhere where there’s a collection like this in a public space other than a very large national gallery or somewhere like that new Whistler Audain Art Museum,” Treloar said.

“E.J. Hughes, one of the things that was really, really important to him with his art was that it was made accessible to the average person. That is why you’ll see, say, the Craig Street Brewery that has beer with labels with his paintings on them. And he allowed a person to make a puzzle of one of his pieces. But this little gallery that we have is exactly what he would want in the sense that an average person can come in here and see some of his work if they couldn’t fly to Ottawa to the national gallery or the war gallery, that kind of thing. We make it accessible.”

To find out more about the Shawnigan Lake Museum visit or visit it at 1775 Shawnigan-Mill Bay Rd. The museum is open Friday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended summer hours beginning in June. Admission is by donation.