Ymir Hotel an unlikely sanctuary for great Canadian art

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From the dated, wood-frame exterior, it would be easy to dismiss Hotel Ymir (pronounced ‘why-mer’) as just another ramshackle old remnant of British Columbia’s mining heyday, relying on income from the eerie glow of video gaming terminals to eke out a marginal existence.

But stepping inside is a bit like diving down the rabbit hole.

Stuffed animals adorn the Hotel Ymir lounge

Although its origins date back to 1896, this is not an old, broken down piss-tank. The hotel where the ConnecTour stopped to visit is, in fact, a rich repository of some of Canada’s finest artists accented by a random collection of artifacts gathered by the owner’s travels around the world.

The owner is Hans Wilking, a former nursery farm operator on Vancouver Island, who will turn 89 in September. Since he acquired the former biker bar in this central B.C. near-ghost town in 2005, he has been slowly rebuilding and filling it with an art and artifact collection valued by some at more than $2 million.

“Sixty years a packrat,” he chuckles, as he sits in a recliner where he is giving himself a treatment to help ease the pain from two cracked vertebrae he received in a fall last winter.

Hotel Ymir
Hans Wilkingo with compression treatment

During COVID, the lounge’s main room is filled with large stuffed dolls – lions, kangaroos and bears – seated at tables that patrons would normally use. Yet, these are only a temporary distraction from the dozens and dozens of visual unicorns in every direction you turn your gaze.

By the door is an original painting by renowned Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau, one of dozens of pieces in Wilking’s collection. Because of COVID concerns, Wilking says we’re not invited to view the gallery of Morrisseau’s works decorating the second-floor hotel hallway; others are stored in a secure building in nearby Salmo.

Of the estimated 400 original paintings and artifacts are also works by Allan Edwards, E.J. Hughes, Richard Priest, Paul Ygartua, Marilyn Sunderman, and sculptor Simon Charlie. Many, like Morrisseau’s works, were bought when the artists were relatively unknown. In fact, Wilking says he knew many of them personally, including Morrisseau when the artist was old and battling alcoholism on the streets of Vancouver.

“He was quite a character,” says Wilking, with characteristic understatement.

The ceiling is adorned with hand-painted batiks from India that Wilking uses as sound-deadening.

Carvings in the Pau Hana room include Salish works, as well as intricate masks and totems collected during travels he and his now-deceased wife Isabelle made to New Guinea and other nations in the South Pacific in the winter months when the nursery in Duncan was closed.

The gnome garden is on display in the back

Behind it is the outdoor gnome garden, with dozens of the little creatures assembled around the showpiece carvings of two bears.

“I need to get out and oil those,” says Gilles, the faithful carpenter who helped Wilking restore and expand the hotel and who now acts as both its bartender and manager. Rooms, he notes, still start at $59 a night.

There’s also a collection of musical instruments that include a stand-up bass, a harp, an electric piano, an accordion, guitars and a banjo. These are not eye-candy . . . the pub has a Saturday night jam in which a lot of these devices are broken out by local musicians.

Rick McFerrin tries the hotel’s banjo

Wilking came by his collecting habit honestly. His maternal grandfather collected art, including early Picasso works, in a hotel in their native home near Bremen, Germany. That collection was confiscated by Soviet soldiers at the end of the Second World War and never returned, but the inclination to collect carried on with Wilking.

“We always collected art,” says Wilking.

I ask Wilking what is the future for his beloved collection, and he admits to some uncertainty.

“That’s a good question,” he shrugs. “I’d like to keep it all together.”

Gilles says various art galleries have expressed interest in portions of the collection, but no one has shown interest in having it all.

For now, the only way to see this overpowering collection of works is to head over to Hotel Ymir, and buy a pint. It’s unlike any pub you’re ever going to see.

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