Years ago, when I was still relatively new to Toronto, I was at Yonge and Eglinton one Sunday afternoon, looking to buy a newspaper. As I walked along the sidewalk, I was approached by a young woman. "Can I give you a hug?" she asked, smiling up at me. I hesitated for a moment, long enough for a suspicious thought or two to arise and fade. "Sure," I responded. The attractive young woman put her arms around my neck, while mine circled her waist, and for a few seconds we stood embracing in the middle of the sidewalk. I smiled and thanked her, she did likewise, and we continued on our separate ways. I noted that she was with two other youngish folk as she walked off. They all appeared happy and smiling. I remember resisting the unwanted impulse to check if I still had my wallet. After all, I wanted to believe.
I recall this minor episode here because I'm thinking about this city's public art. Because, to me, public art is much like the freely offered embrace of a stranger. It's unexpected, capable of stopping one in the middle of an otherwise mundane passage. It can be touching and inspirational. And it feels good. By public art, I don't mean the momuments and large scale commissions by governments or corportations, though I generally like that stuff too. What I refer to here is the artful graffiti, the murals, the commissions of small business owners, and the displays people make of their living spaces.
I loved the murals that adorned the public housing of Regent Park when I worked there, most of it the work of school kids on subsidized summer crews. And I'm blown away by the graffiti art overflowing the alleyways south of Queen Street West. Awhile ago, I was intrigued by the hundreds of reproductions of a single, sketched portrait, with the name "Andrew" inscribed on it, that were plastered on walls and lamp posts all through the downtown.
A few weeks ago, as I rode the streetcar east along Dundas, from the far west into the downtown, I was struck by the numnber, variety and quality of murals decorating the walls of small businesses on almost every block. And my single favorite mural these days, is the huge, surfing body that adorns a building just south of OCAD, on McCaul.
I didn't care much for the moose sculptures that were popping up everywhere a few years ago, but there are two recent examples of serial street art that I count among my favorites. First, there are the spray-painted, monochrome, abandonned bicycles, which a quick google search tells me are part of "the good bike" project. I hear that they've become controversial, that there's a political aspect to them, and that there's been a "this ain't art" backlash. But I think they're beautiful and enlivening.
My other favorite is the recent crop of decorated utility boxes. I've seen about a dozen of them around the city. They're clearly done by different artists - the styles vary so much. Some are crude and simple, others more elaborate or skillfully rendered. But for me, the main appeal is that artistically inclined citizens have taken the time and opportunity to decorate what would otherwise remain drab, utilitarian cabinets. Looking on the internet, I discovered that these painted boxes are flourishing in spots all over the world, particularly in California. And some of the designs are inspired.
It saddens me that, as with the bikes and some murals, critics sometimes come along and put a 'tag' on one of these creations, or deface it with random scrawls, or paint over it. But I understand that not everyone sees these efforts as 'art'. And I totally sympathize with the homeowner or small business person who sees the uninvited project as nothing more than vandalism. Different strokes for different folks, right?
But for me, these instances of public art are a positive symptom, of a city expanding in the dimension of community. Those who know me know that, while I LOVE Toronto, I don't find it a particularly friendly city. In fact, I often refer to the public coldness of my fellow Torontonians as the city's one blemish. In my mind, these tiny artistic eruptions resonate with that long ago embrace from a stranger. Like that hug, these murals and glowing bicycles and scenic utility boxes represent a positive and potent communal energy. They signify a consciousness of openness and sharing that stand as promising exceptions to Toronto's apparent standard of public aloofness. Like that chance embrace of long ago, public art is like a tiny bit of serendipity that eases my despair about our stingy public ways, our mute expressions, our wordless rides up and down the elevators. It embraces me, warms my spirit, and stands as a special ingredient of my image of the city that's my home.