Two people admiring mural of indigenous woman before cityscape

Photography By Denise Militzer

How public art inspires social change

Creative expression in community spaces brings attention to important issues—and empowers people

From Rising, the 20-metre-tall stainless-steel sculpture outside the Shangri-La Hotel on University Avenue, to Arrival, a quintet of haunting human figures at Ireland Park that honour Irish migrants who came to Canada to escape the famine in their homeland, to the city’s abundant (and super-Instagrammable) graffiti, Toronto is full of eye-catching public art. But these murals, sculptures and installations aren’t just pretty to look at; they also make a powerful statement about social issues and give community members a platform for expression.

Public art gives voice to a community’s concerns

“It’s important in a city as diverse as Toronto that different perspectives are represented,” says Anjuli Solanki, director of community programs at the STEPS Initiative, a nationwide charitable organization that facilitates the transformation of public spaces through art. Street-level art is a perfect vehicle for achieving this goal because it is ultimately for the public and can affect how people feel every time they walk past it. “It’s a democratization of creativity and art,” says Solanki.

That’s why community members often have a say in the art that adorns their neighbourhoods. Solanki points to Equilibrium, a towering 23-storey painting on the Parkside Student Residence building at the intersection of Jarvis and Carlton streets. Commissioned by STEPS and painted by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel, it’s a riot of colour and contains graphic elements that reflect the vibrancy and diversity of the community, including LGBTQ+ and Indigenous motifs. What’s more, local and emerging artists, students and other area residents didn’t just offer input—some even collaborated on its execution, thanks to workshops and community painting days.

It’s also about reclaiming space

On a smaller but no less impactful scale, the city’s many street-art murals turn underutilized corners of the city into conversation pieces—and, in 2018, Instagram bait. Take Graffiti Alley, a.k.a. Rush Lane, a kilometre-long side street just south of Queen Street that is such a popular attraction that it has a 4.5-star rating on Yelp. Or the street art at Underpass Park, a cool public space built under the Adelaide Street, Eastern Avenue and Richmond Street overpasses of the Don Valley Parkway.

Of course, the concept of changing the perceived landscape is at the heart of most urban art—and that’s true even for pieces that may not initially be considered art. Take the ghost bikes that populate many of the city’s streets. As Terence Dick, a Toronto art and culture critic, points out, “These memorials can be seen as sculptures, but ones that dramatize a public concern. They are very effective.” Happening upon one of the all-white bikes inevitably forces an uncomfortable awareness of road safety, and the ongoing battle being played out between cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and the municipal government.

Everyone can enjoy—and engage—with public art

When art is housed in a museum or gallery, the public must choose (and often, pay) to engage with it. When it moves to the public realm, however, everyone has access. And that accessibility is key. “What’s nice is that people can approach it in their own time and at their own comfort,” says Deborah Wang, artistic director and curator of DesignTO. “It creates a place to gather.”

Established in a reclaimed space under a section of the Gardiner Expressway, The Bentway checks all the boxes for what public art can do. It was recently transformed into an alien landscape by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, thanks to his Waterlicht installation. The mesmerizing light show, a commentary on rising sea levels and global flood risks, was visited by tens of thousands of people from across the GTA. Interestingly, the out-of-the-way location was no mere happenstance.

“This is not in a museum with a sign that says, ‘Please do not touch,’” says Roosegaarde. “It says that this place underneath a highway is not a junk space or a lost space; it creates a new sense of place.”

At its core, the installation was an opportunity for any and all to interact with creativity on their own terms—and that is the beauty of public art. Whether you’re passing a mural on your way to work, discovering a sculpture in a park or actively seeking out an installation, there are plenty of opportunities to engage with your community and become involved with your city every day through this medium. You simply need to look around.

Highway 407 station

When the TTC’s Toronto-to-York subway extension finally opened in late 2017, it not only made commuting from Vaughan and other parts of York Region easier but also provided commuters with more than a few moments of amazing architecture and stunning artwork. At the Highway 407 station, it’s impossible to ignore artist David Pearl’s Sky Ellipse, a spectacular floor-to-ceiling silkscreened window installation that features giant swaths of translucent colour.

Storeys tall Black and white streetart mural by on St. Clair West at Yonge St.

1 St. Clair West

“Street art and murals seem to appeal to youths, but they can have significant impact on older generations, too. Art can elicit powerful emotions and reactions,” says Anjuli Solanki, director of Community Programs at the STEPS Initiative. Take the mural at 1 St. Clair West by U.K. street artist Phlegm, for instance. A human figure made up of green space and Toronto landmarks, it totally captures the neighbourhood’s spirit—and its residents’ imaginations. A local resident told Solanki that her elderly mother, who has dementia and is no longer able to get out to galleries, always remembers this particular piece.

Toronto Coach Terminal

“Public art can represent the under-represented [and] show that they are active members of the community,” says Solanki. “For the Toronto Coach Terminal, we worked with the YWCA (an agency funded by United Way) and women of colour, many who are also of Indigenous descent, to realize a high-profile project that gave these women a voice.”

Parkdale

The Women Paint laneway project in the city’s Parkdale neighbourhood is an example of the transformative power of public art. The brainchild of local street artist Bareket Kezwer, the initiative provides a platform—alleyways—where female artists can express their creativity. But it’s also a way to reclaim these underutilized areas, which have typically been unsafe for women. “It changes the dialogue and is an example to younger generations,” says Solanki.

Burnhamthorpe Water Project

A social enterprise affiliated with STEPS, The PATCH Project connects developers with local artists, who transform construction sites into art exhibits. One recent example is Mississauga’s Burnhamthorpe Water Project, a massive infrastructure upgrade expected to continue into 2020. Earlier this month, it got its own PATCH-approved artwork, this one by illustrator Wenting Li. Defined by bold, colourful graphics, Li’s work—which will be on display for the next two years—adds positive embellishment to the site and offers a visual breather to all who walk or drive by.

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