The Forest City Playground is bringing new life to a busy downtown walkway that leads to Covent Garden Market.
For years, my family spent three days a week downtown at Covent Garden Market, home of Original Kids Theatre Company. Our kids were dramatic and made the Spriet Family Theatre their second home. From the top level of the market, shoppers have a bird’s eye view of the laneway that links the market to Dundas Street. The view toward Market Lane was grey and uninviting until an ambitious new mural took root.
Created by three women, The Forest City Playground is a three-part mural. It’s a moving expression, drawing inspiration from the Carolinian forests of southwestern Ontario while pulling in elements of personal strength and resilience.
The Downtown London Business Improvement Association curated the wall. They hand-picked the three female artists for the production: Meaghan Claire Kehoe, Stephanie Boutari and Hawlii Pichette. Each brought their own vision and personal background to the project and it shows in the details. Downtown London chose the theme of the Carolinian forest to link the three pieces lining Market Lane. The works all needed to have elements that would integrate with the new augmented reality Engage app being created specifically to support hidden adventures in London, ON.
“I centred my piece around my foster kid and her resilience,” said Meaghan Claire Kehoe. “Swallows are featured and are commonly found in this forest, as is the Eastern Screech Owl and Black Maple trees. The swallow symbolizes coming home, the owl is her wisdom, and the leaves are connection to nature.”
“I had not met the other artists before but was already following Steph on Instagram. Now, of course, I’m friends with both and love seeing their work online.” Currently, Kehoe is working on illustrating a children’s book and booking new murals. While she doesn’t live in London, she has a strong connection to the city. Her grandparents both lived in the city, before her grandfather passed away.
“My mom was an artist, so I came by it naturally. That being said, I do find myself inspired by people and beauty around me. It’s like I need to capture the moment or the essence of it, much like a photo, but less literal,” said Meaghan.
Stephanie Boutari grew up in Bahrain and moved to Canada for post-secondary education. She then decided to stay.
“I was inspired by the idea of creating an ‘augmented’ or semi-virtual forest that is a visual hybrid between digital and representational art. One of my design goals was to encourage curiosity and appreciation of native species with a playful, urban and contemporary feel. My piece focuses on three Carolinian trees: flowering dogwood, tulip tree, and eastern redbud; placing them in the foreground of an abstract geometric forest,” she shared.
Boutari has a couple of murals in progress, mural design proposals, some smaller paintings and digital artworks. She lives in Wellesley, in the Region of Waterloo. She studied architecture and graduated in 2011.
“I’m inspired by colour and the joy it can create, how abstract forms can convey meaning, and playing with visual perception /optical illusions. My architectural background is also a big source of inspiration for me — I frequently experiment with different geometric shapes and patterns in my work.”
Hawlii Pichette, who is of Swampy Cree and French-Canadian descent, is the third artist Downtown London chose to paint the murals. The London-based visual artist does beadwork and visual art installations, drawing from her First Nations background.
Pichette left northern Ontario for London in 2014 to attend Fanshawe College, graduating with an advanced diploma in fine arts. She completed a one-year residency in the Emerging Artists Studio Program at TAP Centre for Creativity, and she has earned many awards and bursaries, including the Satellite Award (2017) from the Satellite Gallery in London.
“I wanted to design a piece that reflected the symmetry of the brick and complimented the architecture of the area,” says Pichette. “I strived to create a space that was fun, bright, inviting and playful.”
Her work often challenges the viewer to explore issues of privilege, land and water rights, and environmental racism — the disproportionate impact of soil contamination and industrial land on areas home to racialized communities.
“I wanted this to be a space for people to engage with art through selfies and to capture their imaginations. The birds in my mural are commonly spotted in London backyards.”
The Complete Vision
The agricultural roots of the London area bring Market Lane to life through the visions of these three talented artists. Each captures a different facet of life in the Forest City. The movement of birds and owls references coming home, while a resilient woman looks on and flowers sprout up playfully. The Forest City Playground ties many cultural influences together, exploring colour, animal imagery and geometry. These murals encourage spectators to celebrate the city, engage with art and reflect on a bright future.