Edmonton artist Josh Harnack spent two weeks putting paint to the gray wall outside Connect Physiotherapy, turning it into a fantastical twilight journey of a lion riding a bicycle, guided by a giant goose with a collar of pink flower petals.

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A head-turning new mural has gone up in Allendale, full of deep symbolism of the circle of life.

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Finishing last Saturday, Edmonton artist Josh Harnack spent two weeks putting paint to the gray wall outside Connect Physiotherapy (6316 106 St.), turning it into a fantastical twilight journey of a lion riding a bicycle, guided by a giant goose with a collar of pink flower petals.

Monarch butterflies are inside this strange scene, as is a squirrel hanging onto the lion’s tail. Following them—why not? — is a dove in X-ray.

“I wanted it to be fun and full of childlike wonder,” says Harnack. “But also a little bit geared toward adults, too.

“The surreal and the unknown of what’s in between that space.

“My idea with this one was it’s kind of like the space between life and death, a little bit of limbo. I envisioned this lion on his bike ride as his journey through limbo, life and death, with the goose kind of representing the shepherd or the boatman, which is also why it has a halo, too — a guardian angel, almost.”

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The artist included the monarchs because they’re a favorite creature of his.

“But also because they’ve already gone through this process of life and death as caterpillars reborn.”

He notes the skeleton bird is a nod to the Grim Reaper, explaining, “Death follows us along, right? But also, the dove is a symbol of peace.”

Detail of Josh Harnack's new mural at Connect Physiotherapy in Allendale.
Detail of Josh Harnack’s new mural at Connect Physiotherapy in Allendale. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /postmedia

The symbols come naturally, from life lived. Harnack, 28, spent five years battling cancer when he was younger, which helped him access the sense of limbo in the painting.

“In the heat of chemotherapy I did feel like half of my body was dead, the other half alive,” he notes.

“It started in my testicle and I had to get surgery on the last day of high school. A year later, it came back in my lymph nodes and stomach, so radiation for that. Then a year later, it came back again in the lymph nodes, but it had moved between my lungs.”

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In and out of treatment after high school — he’s been clear for six years now — Harnack followed his love of drama and musical theater, moving west, attending Vancouver Film School and getting an agent. His art career by him sort of crept out of the woodwork almost accidentally there.

“When I moved out to Vancouver,” he says, “the cost of living was so high that I couldn’t really afford to go out all the time and do all these fun things with my classmates, so I found myself sitting at home in my apartment painting a lot.

“Then, you know, I’d post about it and sell one here, sell one there, for like 40 bucks,” he laughs. “And I kind of got better and better.”

Meanwhile, he was auditioning hard whenever he could. “I would get callback, and in the 11th hour I knew I’d nailed it and got that part.

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“But my agent would call me and say, ‘Hey, Josh. They to go with someone else they really liked because he had decided longer hair.’ Or brown eyes. Or something like that.”

I’ve noticed a recurring theme: optics, essentially.

“When it came down to it, I didn’t want my professional career to be determined by how I looked. I wanted it to be determined by the skill of the craft.

“I found art to be the exact opposite, where it was all about the work, and started pursuing art full time.”

Harnack moved home and took graphic design and visual communication at NAIT, graduating in 2018. Since then, besides his smaller-scale paintings, he’s done 10 indoor murals at various businesses around town, including at Dealcloser in the Mercer Building and Bloom Hair Studio at 2920 Calgary Trail.

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The untitled mural on Connect is Harnack’s fourth outdoor wall, others up at Emmy Deveaux (6924 104 St.) and RADO Alley in Old Strathcona.

He’s got more work going up soon in Le Louvre Residencies and in Vegreville this summer.

The new lion and goose mural was made possible by Connect and the city’s Community Mural Grant Program and, indeed, created an instant sense of community as Harnack painted it.

“People can see it from their front yard, so they’d just stroll over, bring their dogs by and chat me up,” Harnack laughs. “Bus drivers would honk as they drove by, and people would yell from their car windows or from the bike path.”

Connect’s owner Ruben San Martin was also impressed.

“The fact that someone can even paint something with that level of detail that large is just mind-boggling to me,” he says. “Rather than get something to promote the business we just asked him to paint something people in the community and the nearby school would enjoy.”

The plan worked. “There was eight or nine people standing there one time and I was just painting away and they found out they were all neighbors and had never spoken to each other before,” Harnack says. “So it was a very direct way of community engagement, where now these people are engaging with each other — pretty cool.”

Head to harnack.ca to see more of the artist’s work, and take the time to visit the new wall to cheerfully contemplate infinity with the help of a giant goose — it’s well worth it.

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