Vancouver Mural Festival takes art to the streets

The inaugural event is more than just a giant art party; it aims to change the city’s view of outdoor wall painting

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      A month ago, Graeme McCormack and Alison Woodward were complete strangers. Today, on a hot afternoon beneath the beaming late-July sun, the artists are scaling scaffolding as they collaborate on what could very well be one of the largest canvases they’ll ever have the opportunity to paint.

      “This is my second professional mural,” says Woodward as she adds strokes of purple to the piece on the south side of MakerLabs in the Downtown Eastside. A seafoam-green wall is the backdrop for two mask-wearing purple monsters enjoying a cup of tea in front of a bright yellow sun.

      Woodward says even though she’s been able to make a career out of her artwork, finding locations to paint large, public pieces in Vancouver—a city with the highest per capita concentration of artists in Canada—is incredibly difficult.

      “We mostly do client-based work, so getting to do something that is entirely our own, and at this scale, is amazing,” Woodward says, grinning. “Having a powerhouse of dedicated people who are willing to spend their time facilitating this for us is awesome.”

      The powerhouse she speaks of, a team of nine community-minded artists and art enthusiasts, is responsible for organizing the inaugural Vancouver Mural Festival.

      Thanks to their efforts, 39 local and six international artists will be given spaces to paint permanent, contemporary murals in Mount Pleasant and parts of the Downtown Eastside ahead of the festival, which will take place throughout the neighbourhood on August 20.

      The Vancouver Mural Festival gave Alison Woodward the chance to create her second professional mural.
      Amanda Siebert

      Other activities will be held along Main Street between East 7th and East 12th avenues, with live music on multiple stages, interactive art exhibitions, community projects, and a marketplace where more than 150 local businesses will be represented.

      Festival founder David Vertesi says he was primarily inspired by the presence of street art in areas like San Francisco’s Mission District and Miami’s Wynwood neighbourhood, but also by the Montreal Mural Festival, which recently celebrated its fourth anniversary.

      Since its inception in 2013, the Montreal fest has resulted in the creation of more than 60 murals along Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Vertesi says it has “completely changed the city’s landscape”.

      While he acknowledges that the City of Vancouver has done much to increase the presence of public art over the last few years—including endorsing a plan to spend $1.5 million on new works by 2018—he still feels that picture isn’t quite complete.

      He can point to just one piece in the city that represents the type of work he wants to see more of: Granville Island’s Giants by Brazilian artists OSGEMEOS. The vivid, contemporary piece painted on the industrial silos at the Ocean Concrete plant was completed in 2014 as part of the Vancouver Biennale.

      “I think Vancouver has some really great funding for public art,” he says, “but that process is all by committee. What’s missing right now is the ability for local artists in their communities to express themselves through public art.”

      Instead of mimicking the city’s model of curating public art through applications and councils—a process that Vertesi says can put creative limitations on artists—he recruited local curator Drew Young to act as the festival’s art director and help find up-and-coming artists to include in the festival.

      Young, the mind behind the Cobalt’s weekly live painting night, Snag, and a fixture in the city’s alternative arts community, produced a list of nearly 400 candidates that he and Vertesi sifted through before deciding on the final participants.

      “We wanted to curate something very high-level that still represented diversity in the city, without getting tokenistic about it, which is hard,” Vertesi says.

      “To me, real diversity isn’t 10 murals of people holding hands, it’s 10 murals by 10 different people from different backgrounds with different life stories, and they do whatever they want. They don’t have to do anything that sticks to a theme, and it’s innately diverse.”

      For Young, the festival provides a public platform for talented artists who happen to live in a city where galleries and exhibition spaces are disappearing at a rapid rate.

      “It’s becoming harder and harder to find a place for them to exhibit work and be showcased, and I’m afraid they’ll have nowhere to go pretty soon,” Young says. “What better way is there than, instead of trying to find a brick-and-mortar gallery, to actually paint that brick and mortar?”

      Graeme McCormack and Alison Woodward collaborate on a mural on the south wall of MakerLabs, at 780 East Cordova.
      Amanda Siebert

      The list of local participants includes graffiti grand masters like Dedos, Akews, and Tars, as well as contemporary painters like Ola Volo, Scott Sueme, and Corey Bulpitt. Vertesi and Young hope that, by bolstering the lineup with a handful of international artists, they can put Vancouver on the map as a public-art destination.

      “People that come to Vancouver will see the talent we have here, and those artists will have this invaluable opportunity to get their work out there and validated in the public sense,” Vertesi says.

      While the emphasis is certainly on Vancouver-based contributors, the list of international artists is nothing to balk at. Among them are renowned names like Brazil’s Bicicleta Sem Freio, France’s KASHINK, and Swit­zerland’s NEVERCREW.

      Even with a nine-person organizing team, preparing for the festival was no easy feat. Partnering with the Burrard Arts Foundation, the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area, and the City of Vancouver, Vertesi and team sorted through more than 100 walls in the Mount Pleasant area before successfully narrowing it down to 21. (Some buildings will be adorned with multiple murals.) Most are located near Main Street between Prior Street and East 16th Avenue, stretching from Mount Pleasant all the way to the Downtown Eastside.

      “It was a lot of door-to-door knocking, talking to different businesses, and trying to locate building owners,” Vertesi says. In some cases, it took a bit of convincing.

      “People in Vancouver are skeptical, and I feel very lucky to have somehow pushed through that with the support of the BIA,” he says.

      Charmaine Carpenter, programs and marketing manager of the Mount Pleasant BIA, says that the idea for a mural festival came at the perfect time for the neighbourhood.

      “We just finished writing a community art plan, and we were really looking to get the process going for public community art,” Carpenter says. “My goal this year was four murals. In this partnership, we’re getting close to 40. It’s an epic amount of art.”

      City councillor and deputy mayor Heather Deal is the liaison to the arts-and-culture-policy council. Like Carpenter, she was in the midst of working to improve and increase the presence of public art in Vancouver when she heard about the inaugural event.

      “Along came this festival that was already well under way, and we were happy to partner with them,” Deal says. Matching the amount of money raised by festival organizers, the city provided the Vancouver Mural Festival with a $200,000 grant to help get the ball rolling.

      “I think the more animated the public realm is, the more joy people have as they move around the city, whether that’s walking their dog, playing with their kids, or walking to work,” Deal says. “There’s a lot of capacity here, and I really hope we can see it expand to other neighbourhoods.”

      Artist Graeme McCormack says he'd love to see the festival spread to other areas of Vancouver in the future.
      Amanda Siebert

      Atop a rickety scaffold, McCormack adds a few defining lines to a section of his mural with Woodward. Like so many others associated with the festival, McCormack hopes to see it move beyond Mount Pleasant, and into areas of Vancouver that lack colour and culture.

      “When you see other cities, there’s such an emphasis on public art, and whether or not it’s good art, it’s still present,” says McCormack. “This festival gives art more visibility, and more emphasis on local community, while making it more attractive—which would be great to see in areas like the bank district along West Hastings,” he says.

      Still, beginning in the city’s art-centric neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant makes sense. Of Vancouver’s ability to embrace art, Vertesi thinks we’re making steps in the right direction. Without pioneers like the Eastside Culture Crawl, Car Free Day, the Vancouver Biennale, and Khatsahlano, he says that the Vancouver Mural Festival wouldn’t exist.

      “We’re just trying to put it together as one thing. Our goal is to transform the way art is seen in Vancouver—literally, and figuratively.”

      The Vancouver Mural Festival’s street party will be held in Mount Pleasant next Saturday (August 20) between noon and 7 p.m.