Illuminating the skyline: an artist’s bright idea



From his bedroom window in Central McDougall, a young boy watched as the red glow of the logo on the CN Tower flowed into every curve of each letter—CN—turning dark, then starting again. This sight left an imprint on him, inspiring a future project that became a beloved holiday landmark—the Telus Building Christmas trees.


An old photograph of Slavo and his family standing on a street in downtown Edmonton in 1969.
Slavo, the little boy in the front, stands with his family on Jasper Avenue in Spring 1969. Courtesy of Slavo Cech.


A not so warm welcome

In December 1968, Slavo Cech and his family emigrated from what is now the Czech Republic to Canada. While they had a few options to choose from, they ultimately landed in Edmonton.

“My dad had a mechanical engineering background, and while they were at a refugee camp in Germany, he looked into Australia and Canada,” Slavo explains while sitting in his studio in Edmonton’s southside. “One thing that stuck out was that Edmonton was an industrial up-and-coming city with oil and machine shops. So he thought it would be a great place to move to.”

The family had quite the introduction to the city’s winters. The Cechs arrived one month before the historic January of 1969, when Edmontonians faced 26 days straight of -20 C (and colder) temperatures. It didn’t dissuade the young Slavo, though, as he has stayed in Edmonton ever since. He embraces winter, especially enjoying snowy walks in the river valley.


A man walks beside a tall Christmas tree decorated with red bulbs and white bows.
Slavo Cech beside one of his commercial Christmas trees in the early ‘80s. Courtesy of Slavo Cech.


Road to a marquee landmark

Teenage summer jobs usually include working at a pool, camp, or maybe a local fast-food restaurant. However, during high school, Slavo worked for the only person in Canada who manufactured commercial Christmas decorations that brightened cities and towns from Vancouver Island to P.E.I. 

Over the summer, Slavo refurbished decorations like those hanging on light posts and learned how to make the metal stands used to support Christmas trees. This was his introduction to metal work, and after graduating from a marketing program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, something stuck out: anyone with no competition should have competition. So he began compiling mailing lists of potential clients and getting orders. 

At 22 years old, Slavo began researching the kind of holiday displays they do in the United States, like Rockefeller Centre's enormous Christmas tree in New York City. A lightbulb (no pun intended) went off.


"I thought: ‘Wouldn't it be cool to do something on a grand scale here?’"


Scanning downtown Edmonton’s skyline, he set his sights on the Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) building, what we locals know now as the Telus building. In 1987, Slavo pitched his idea to AGT—install a bunch of Christmas trees out of lights on the south side of the building. Staff jumped at the opportunity, but constructing it was a whole other challenge. 

"I said, ‘Well, the engineering part is a little bit beyond me,’” says Slavo. “I'm the idea person for how it should be laid out, and I see it not as a static display but as having the lights move.’" 

Recalling how the CN Tower’s logo of red moving lights captured his imagination as a child, Slavo knew AGT’s display of Christmas trees needed a similar spark of animation. However, the technology didn't exist at that time to accommodate his vision. Luckily, this was just the type of challenge where Edmontonians come together, problem solve and (spoiler alert) shine. 

Not only did AGT's engineering department build the Christmas trees and figure out how to make the lights move, workers also permanently installed them. Climbing up scaffolding, they successfully hung the wires and installed hundreds of bulbs on the building. They were first lit in 1988—and over the years, those four Christmas trees with their moving lights have become a holiday landmark and a part of Edmonton’s history. 

"It does feel really good. I mean, I was 22,” says Slavo. “It's a lifetime ago. So yes, it's there, but it's taken on a life of its own. It's its own entity now. But, I do feel proud that it's still around, and no one's more surprised that it's still up than me."


Slavo stands with the Telus building Christmas trees behind him at night during the winter. The trees are lit up in red, green and yellow.
Slavo, and the trees, continue to shine in 2022—36 years after he came up with the idea for the display.


It’s just home

Slavo recognizes the opportunities Edmonton has given him and he gives back to the community whenever he can. When the pandemic hit, he started to sense people’s anxiety and stress levels climbing and knew he wanted to do something to help.

“I thought: ‘What can I do with my skill set and what I know how to do to get people involved and outside?’”


Slavo Cech in his studio holding a gold metal sculpture with other pieces behind him on a table.
Slavo Cech in his studio holding his 'Seasons Change' piece.


Slavo came up with the idea of #ArtHuntYeg. He creates a metal sculpture, hides it somewhere in the river valley, and posts clues tagged with the hashtag. Whoever finds the sculpture gets to keep it. The art hunt has become such a success that he continues to run it. 

He also donates his pieces to auctions to raise money for local charities, like the Julie Rohr Scholarship Fund. Rohr was an Edmontonian who advocated for the public health care system while she battled a rare form of cancer. Each year, the fund donates $5,000 to a post-secondary student who has lost a parent to the disease.


Gold metal sculpture made into the shape of bent grass.
'Bent but Not Broken' sculpture from the Bent Grasses collection.


Slavo also finds inspiration from our city that makes its way into his work, including the Bent Grasses collection.

“I’ll go out in nature and take photos in the fall and spring when the grass is done for the season. I’d take a photo, come back to my studio and make my interpretation of it.”

The river valley's easily accessible nature is one of the things Slavo likes best about Edmonton. Still, so many other aspects of the city fill his list. Opportunities, community, affordability, family and inspiration have kept Slavo here since that first freezing winter in December 1968. 

“It’s just home. I’ve never pined to move anywhere else.”