The inaugural commission of Like A River by Kristen McCrea was unveiled this past week on the corner of Gerrard St E. and Carlaw Avenue in Toronto’s east end. This expansive public mural is a breath of fresh air, with its eclectic mix of patterns and flower motif that pays tribute to the neighbourhood’s multicultural roots. Seeing this project come to life, has gotten me thinking about what makes art thrive in a neighbourhood. This is increasingly an issue as we think about how cities grow and gentrify, which can lead to the displacement of people and culture that authentically reflects a neighbourhood.
This past year Bespoke Collective worked with Street Art Toronto (StART) and public art planner Rebecca Carbin on the East End Bridges to Art project initiated by Councillor Paula Fletcher. We were tasked with leading a public engagement process that defined a community-led vision for nine murals to be painted along underpasses in the east end. It is a beautiful project that transforms a series of once neglected underpasses into large-scale unexpected art moments.
In our humble opinion, public art needs to do more than beautify a place. Murray Whyte (former Globe and Mail art critic) said it best in the Boston Globe this past week: “In principle, public art should have the public good in mind. It should have time, place, and circumstance close at heart. It should say something about the ground on which it stands and the people forced to negotiate it.” I think these words resonate in Toronto, a city made up of distinct neighbourhoods that have been shaped by a kaleidoscope of stories, histories, cultures, hopes, and also fraught with the challenges of living in a growing city. A public art commission — if done well — can be a point of pride and reveal why we call a place home.
While I got my start working in a major museum that was focused on telling a story about the world’s “greatest” artists and artworks, I am now much more interested in how art can be grown from “the ground on which it stands.” This project has led me to ask: how do we distill the soul of a place and share it back to our future selves and to future generations? I think we always need to start from a place of deep listening and creating space for meaningful conversations.
I will not walk you through the depths of our community engagement process, except to say that it was hardworking and robust. What is more interesting to share is that we deliberately designed visioning workshops that bite off far more than they could chew. We asked the community big philosophical questions around how one defines the character of place and about how the art can navigate a public space that lives across the past, present and future. In the sessions we also explored the raw ingredients of meaning making — the present-day issues we face, the memories we cherish, the histories we celebrate, what we avoid and don’t speak of, as well as the qualities that one associates with strong community belonging.
The community members who participated in our work sessions rose to the occasion. They responded with warmth, openness and intelligence. Before we had any conversations about what type of artist or artworks should be selected, we dove deep into the culture of the neighbourhoods we were looking to stitch together. Maybe, public art shouldn’t be thought of as a magnet that draws people to a place. Instead we should start with tapping into the community voices who can guide us towards the richest starting point for artistic inspiration. I truly believe that public art is at its best when the specificity of a space, the perspectives of the community and the artist’s vision all come together to make a third thing. As our city changes and grows, we have a responsibility to make sure that the complexity of our cultural roots act as a foundation for the future.
By: Christina Bagatavicius
Huge thanks to everyone who made this project happen: StART (StreetARToronto) led by Carolyn Taylor, Councillor Paula Fletcher and her office, Kristen McCrea and her team as well as our amazing co-collaborators in the visioning work and jury process — Rebecca Carbin (ART + PUBLIC Untd), Kim Wheatley and Harry Choi. Big thanks to The Real Jerk and Jimmy Simpson for providing us with such welcoming community spaces. Lots of love to the community members, jurors and local storytellers who generously welcomed us into their neighbourhoods. Lastly, a heartfelt thanks to my incredibly hardworking team at Bespoke Collective: Sagan MacIsaac and Alia Rasul.