With Papergirl Vancouver, access to art knows no boundaries

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In an upstairs office of the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, enthusiasm erupts like lava from a small but active volcano. The crowded room, which bubbles with people working on computers, answering the phones, scanning artworks, and sitting on the floor opening mail, is the staging area for the community art project known as Papergirl Vancouver. Works on paper or fabric, donated by artists from across Metro Vancouver and beyond—hey, a parcel of manga-style illustrations has just arrived from an artist in Japan!—are being readied here for their new life on the street.

After their exhibition at the Roundhouse, from Monday to Friday (July 23 to 27), they will be given away by “Papergirls” to the wider world. On July 28, along a still-undisclosed urban route, volunteers on bicycles will deliver the art at random. Rolled up like newspapers, the prints, drawings, paintings, poems, textiles, and photographs will be handed to strangers in an act that is equal parts art, philanthropy, and social intervention.

Michele Mateus is the Roundhouse volunteer coordinator who is overseeing the local version of this international “redefinition” of street art. “The Papergirl project started in Germany in 2006 and the idea is ‘the art of giving art’,” she says. “It’s really about taking art onto the streets and sharing it with the community.” It’s a way, too, of making contemporary art accessible to people who might be uncomfortable with gallery or museum settings. Like graffiti, it removes class and commerce from the public’s encounters with it. Unlike graffiti, the public gets to take the art home with them.

Since its launch in Berlin in 2006 by artist Aisha Ronniger, the Papergirl art project has spread to cities across the globe, from Bucharest to Brisbane and from Istanbul to New York, San Francisco, and, yes, Vancouver. Our city embraced the Papergirl franchise for the first time a year ago, then as now under the auspices of the Roundhouse with Mateus as project manager. Last summer, 20 volunteers on bikes distributed more than 540 works by 75 contributing artists, she recounts. “For me, it’s really about connecting community. Art happens to be the vehicle.”

Mateus and project coordinator Eryne Donahue sift through some of the donated artworks, including colour-saturated landscape photographs, computer drawings of stylized flowers and trees, humorous illustrations of ants on bicycles, and abstract expressionist paintings on small pieces of unstretched canvas. One of the stipulations of the Papergirl project, Mateus explains, is that the artworks can be rolled up, like a newspaper, for delivery by volunteer Papergirls (and Paperboys she stresses—there are no gender exclusions here) during the “ride-out”. Another is that the art, which is gathered through an open call, exhibited, and then given away, is neither juried nor curated. This democratic approach brings together amateurs and professionals, young and old, across the visual art disciplines.

“At the exhibition opening last year, it was really powerful,” Mateus recalls. “There was such a cross-section of skill sets.” Donahue nods, then adds, “You’ve got people from totally different spheres of the art world. There’s an impulse to share.” An artist herself, Donahue is contributing two silk-screen prints to Papergirl Vancouver. She normally exhibits her work in galleries, she says, but has been frustrated with that context. “I can’t really access the kind of audience that I want and if I really want to communicate something to people, there’s got to be a better way.” Still, she’s quick to add, “In the case of Papergirl, there are a lot of different motivations, because there’s such a diverse group submitting work.”

There are diverse reactions by the art recipients, too, Mateus says, citing what happened last year—everything from gratitude to apprehension. “A lot of people did not believe that they didn’t have to give us their email address or their phone number or make a donation of money.”

At a time when scams unfold on every street corner and the privileged few pay tens of millions of dollars to own a single work of market-sanctioned art, that disbelief is hardly surprising. Still, if a smiling Papergirl bicycles toward you on July 28, rolled-up artwork in hand, believe it. This delivery is real.

Papergirl Vancouver is at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Monday to Friday (July 23 to 27).

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