700 Dundas St, right between Palace Theatre and Ark Aid Mission. That was the spot the Old East Village Business Improvement Association had offered for me to paint a mural as part of a neighbourhood beautification project.
I had seen the murals that Jessica Woodward, Dawn Redskye, and Robin Henry had completed down the street. The collage I had submitted for my proposal contained gestural figure drawings, pops of bright colour, and the image of circles.
I knew this location would involve introducing myself to the community of Ark Aid Mission in the process. I accepted the opportunity with all this in mind, and headed out to paint my first ever mural. With intuition, step ladder, and a wheelie cart with cans of paint in tow, I felt a mixture of determination, curiosity, and excitement.
Breaking the Ice
That first day I got set up outside around 2:00pm. By 4:00 I had finished a thick coat of white primer across all three panels. I was starting to sketch preliminary text and circles when I noticed folks starting to gather around in greater numbers. A line started to form. One of the mission volunteers explained to me that the wall I was working on is where everyone lined up to wait for the mission to start serving dinner at 5:00pm, which happens every night. With the help of that volunteer, patrons generously made room for me, and lined up along the edge of the sidewalk, closer to the street.
Here they were now, the community I knew was coming, standing six feet away from me, watching me work. How could I take this opportunity, day one, to introduce myself? What could I do to personalize this process? The idea of how to get figures drawn into the mural had been on my mind. I’m not the best at drawing, but I had taken a couple of figure drawing classes. So, when I found myself surrounded by all these people it hit me: I could ask them to be my models, and sketch members of the community into the mural itself. I stepped down from the ladder, and turned towards a man standing at the front of the line, smiling at me. His name is Roger.
‘Do you mind if I sketch you? Don’t expect it to actually look like you, it’ll just be your outline. Do you mind?’
‘Oh yeah sure. Go ahead. Everyone knows me here.’
Roger straightened his spine, adjusted his cap, and put his hands in his pockets. Ready. By the end of my first two days, I had sketched five patrons of Ark Aid Mission into the panels: Roger, Nicki, Randall, Jason, and Christine. I now fully understood that I was painting this mural for them. I hadn’t planned it, but including these folks in this way was my best decision. It broke the ice, it got us talking to one another, and it made it easier for us to look one another in the eye. Ignoring each other was not how this mural was going to get accomplished. Our relationships would be part of the ‘beautification’.
Strangers into Neighbours
Remember that beautiful, balmy, sunshiny week at the beginning of November? Well, that was the week that I went out everyday with the goal of completing the mural by the end of it. Each day I would arrive around 1:00pm and stay until the light was leaving the sky, always catching the dinner crowd. Each day as I painted I would wonder who I would see that day, who would stop by for a visit and a check-in, who would shout out a friendly heckle (‘Ohhhh, look who’s back again! And what colour are we working with today?’), or an encouraging word (‘You’re doing a good job. Keep it up!’’). I wondered who would I find sleeping against the wall when I arrived, who I would gently speak with, saying ‘no rush, no need to move, just want to let you know I am the artist working on this mural and I am setting up for the day. Thanks so much for understanding.’
Jason and Randall would come around during the afternoon hours to chat. Jason showed up one day asking if he could sit and draw with me while I painted. We talked about how we were both missing making art with other people, and how grateful we both were for the opportunity we had before us now. Randall made sure that when I drew him, I drew him as round as he really was, and in a pose of his choosing. When I asked him what he thought of the mural after it was done, he replied, ‘It was exciting watching it become finished. I really like it [the mural] because my friends are in it. Chi Miigwetch!!!’
Roger and Nicki were part of the dinner crowd, and would show up early, giving us time to chat and catch up. Nicki told me she wanted to bring her granddaughter down with her someday so she could point out which figure was her. Her granddaughter is also an artist.
Christine only ever showed up that first night. It wasn’t until the mural was complete, and I had gone back out to try and find some of the subjects (to get permission to name and quote them here) that I saw her again. She and her husband Lonny were generous enough to talk with me for a bit, and I’m so glad they did. Christine said this mural was the first time she’d ever been ‘put in anything’. I found out both her and Lonny are writers (something we have in common). When I asked Lonny what he thought of the mural he said, ‘I was excited for my wife. You did a great job. And hopefully, we’ll see you around again.’
‘You are. We are. I am.’ That is the text I ended up painting over all five figures. It shows above everyone’s head as they line up along that wall. It’s a message of being enough, just as we are. I hope so, anyway. I hope that the message this mural sends to everyone who sees it, is one of hope. The kind of hope found in community, friendship, mutual aid, and support. I hope it sends a message from me to my neighbours that I see you, you are worthy, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to impact one another. I hope what we created in those days and weeks lasts much longer than the mural itself.
Thank you to Roger, Nicki, Randall, Jason, and Christine. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you to the volunteers of Ark Aid Mission, including Tom Fountain, who told me that he felt the mural did uplift the community, and he personally ‘loves it.’ Thank you to Nicki and Jen at the OEV BIA for your support and belief in my ability. It takes a trained eye to see what can be. It takes a courageous hand to attempt to create it. It takes a loving heart to sit with the process. May I take what I have learned here, and become a better artist and community member because of it. And may another mural be in my future.
Being a Neighbour
If you are able, please donate to the organizations listed below. They provide support for many folks who experience houselessness, addiction, poverty, and mental illness in this city, and winter requires much in terms of support:
Secondly, please petition our local elected officials at city hall. It is their paid responsibility to provide for everyone that lives here. Food and shelter is a basic human right. You can find details to contact your local representatives here.