There’s more to assembling a giant public-art festival than simply picking one’s favourite artists, as Drew Young knows well. The founding artistic director of the annual Vancouver Mural Festival, who returns this year as lead curator, explains that his job is not only to choose the works that will be emblazoned on walls throughout the city, but to assemble the other curators who will also pick those works, give technical advice to artists who most likely have never worked on such a grand scale, and serve as both coach and cheerleader for the team as a whole.
None of which seems to faze the affable Young, who somehow manages to do all this while maintaining his own art practice as a creator of large, vibrant abstract paintings.
As the VMF, now in its fourth year, grows and matures, Young contends that it’s been important to scale up the curatorial process in much the same way that artists have to enlarge their images to mural size. “It’s super important to bring other people in from different perspectives, and it’s been really successful over the past two years that we’ve been bringing in guest curators,” he explains in a telephone interview from Olympic Village. “We’ve had all sorts of interesting characters that I would never have been able to uncover.”
His responsibilities really come into focus once the selection of artists is complete. “I spend a great deal of time doing one-on-ones [with the artists], where we talk about ‘Dear so-and-so: I understand you do tiny little watercolours. How are you going to blow this up to a 100-foot wall?’ ” Young says. “Everyone’s a little bit nervous when they come from an art practice like digital media or small watercolour approaches—and my goal is to have them leave these meetings still feeling a little nervous, but also really excited, with an understanding of what our whole process is going to look like.”
Carmen Chan admits to being one of those watercolour artists, mildly alarmed by the Vancouver Mural Festival task she’s taken on: adding her artwork to a wall at 8 West 8th Street, near Mount Pleasant’s popular 33 Acres brewery. But, as she explains from her day job working in IT, her trepidation isn’t based on fear that her delicate floral paintings won’t transfer to mural size.
“Luckily, my wall is only about a storey high, because I’m a little bit afraid of heights,” she says, laughing.
The scale of the work is daunting, Chan continues, but she already has a clear idea of how to proceed. Working from her earlier painting of iris flowers in a garden, she’ll enlarge and simplify the image, bringing more of a graphic sensibility to her training in traditional Chinese brush-painting styles. The work’s title, Saturday Kind of Love, plays on the name of a jazz and pop standard covered by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ella Fitzgerald—and on her weekly art lessons, which began after her family moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver when she was five.
“The song, as you know, is about finding something that’s a long-lasting love, or kind of a passion—and I see art as that,” Chan explains. “So I’m dedicating this mural to all the years that I’ve painted at my art teacher’s house, and having this kind of ritual, every Saturday, to depend on. That really balances out my busy IT-project-management life.”
Working in public will be much different than painting in the privacy of her home, Chan says, and she thinks that will embolden her art, just as the Vancouver Mural Festival has enlivened our city. “I can tell already that people are very engaged with murals in Vancouver because of the mural festival,” she says. “The murals really bring people out into the streets—all ages, all cultures, all sexes, because it is such a welcoming event for everybody.”
Pablo Zamudio puts it somewhat differently, but feels much the same. Another first-time Vancouver Mural Festival participant, he sees the event as a needed stimulant for a city that has a reputation for suppressing its more vibrant aspects.
“Art is amazing,” he says, on the line from his painting studio in the back of his Chinatown “lifestyle shop and gallery”, El Kartel. “It’s an expression of who we are and what we feel, and about all the chaos and all the energy, that craziness, in which we live. So I think it’s beautiful. It’s the same thing when you go to the symphony or to a play or anything.”
For Zamudio, who’ll paint one of his signature op-art abstractions in an alley behind the 100 block of West 4th Avenue, the festival is also an extension of his own interests—as an artist and as an arts advocate. Part of El Kartel’s mandate, he explains, is to host shows by emerging artists—and to encourage them further, he doesn’t take any commission on works sold through the store. Meanwhile, his own painting practice was initially sparked by the vibrant graffiti and skateboard art he encountered as a kid.
“When I was very little, I was really obsessed with all the graphics that involved skateboarding,” says Zamudio, who notes that in addition to painting and skateboarding he’s designed actionwear for companies such as Westbeach Apparel and Option Snowboards. “Then I had the opportunity to go to high school in Washington state, and there I had an art class. And that is where I started discovering, like, Miró and Picasso and Kandinsky, and that just blew my mind.”
Chances are that Zamudio’s mural will blow a few minds too. He’s known for pulsing colour combinations and trippy, mandalalike geometric designs, and although he’s never worked on such a large scale, he’s eager to see how his designs will translate onto a wall-sized canvas. It’s just as well, in fact, that his work won’t be visible from busy 4th Avenue. “You don’t want to distract people, right?” he says with a laugh. “You don’t want to cause an accident.”
But if Zamudio’s public painting inspires others to pick up a brush—or a guitar, or a pen—he and the Vancouver Mural Festival will have done their work well.
“Just creating, I think, is something that’s really important in our lives, and so many people, they never take the chance to find their outlet and, you know, let that energy out,” he says. “So when people see a beautiful mural or something like that, they might get inspired in other ways.”
The Vancouver Mural Festival runs from Thursday (August 1) to August 10. For a full schedule and locations, look here.