Keith Haring once said, “Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people.” Now more than ever, street arts’ innate accessibility and inclusivity is incredibly valuable.
Open Studio Contemporary Printmaking and the City of Toronto’s StreetARToronto (START) Program have collaborated to celebrate Open Studio’s 50th anniversary. This project aims to bring printmaking outside of the gallery and into the public sphere, namely sites of past and present artistic centres in Toronto. Featuring sixteen artworks, by twelve artists from Open Studio and four from WBEC Studios in Kinngait, these analogue prints have been vinyl wrapped and installed on traffic signal control cabinets at different intersections throughout the city, from Queen Street West to the Junction.
Open Studio’s aim to bring printmaking to a wider audience is even more impactful in unprecedented times such as these. Art lovers missing their habitual gallery visits due to COVID-19 are encouraged to seek out these boxes, either intentionally or by chance.
At home with Toronto’s already vivid street art scene, these prints fit naturally with the eclectic, mismatch aesthetic of the city. The first artwork in the list, by Pudy Tong, stands at Queen St West and Peter St, amidst of closed boutiques and empty restaurants.
Pudy Tong’s work at Queen Street West and Peter Street. Courtesy of Openstudio.ca
This dynamic, complex piece brings energy to this now-quiet location. Its vibrant, playful hues and frenetic lines first seem abstracted, but upon looking closer you can see overlapping images of the printing process, in different colours and varying opacity. The box is colored in pink, yellow, and blue, so the different levels of transparency enable the colours to combine into new shades.
The other side of Pudy Tong’s work at Queen Street West and Peter Street. Courtesy of Openstudio.ca
These printed motifs overlap to form masses of indiscernible shapes. Groups of prints with matching bright colours clump together, while two larger, monochrome printers in the foreground, depicting printing instruments, capture the attention of the viewer.
Another box is decorated by Brenda Joy Lem. On the front and back, there are two portraits, a woman on the side that is facing the sidewalk, and a man on the side looking at the street. On the other sides and under the woman’s portrait, there are repeating lotus motifs, and several photographic scenes. Lem’s work highlights the important history of working-class Chinese Canadians.
Front side of Brenda Joy Lem’s piece at Queen Street West and Augusta Avenue. Photo: Bronwen Cox
Most parts of the images are monochromatic, in varying shades of muted purple, but the man’s figure and his surroundings are coloured in bright, attention-demanding red pigment.
Other side of Lem’s piece at Queen Street West and Augusta Avenue. Photo: Bronwen Cox
These prints originated from Lem’s solo exhibition Homage to the Heart, in which many of her works were inspired by her family history. These portraits depict her aunt and her uncle. The portraits are intimate, and both figures’ warm, welcoming smiles give a feeling of intimacy and comfort.
Meggan Winsley’s work depicts a startling anthropomorphic figure: a creature with a bear’s head, wearing a three-piece suit and holding a dead fish in its mouth. This bear-human sports a colorful bowtie with geometric patterns. Beast and human overlap and can no longer be separated. The pink salmon might be food for both. The bear can be a long-forgotten totem animal for this well dressed male, who might no longer remember the basic instincts of his origin. The background is a pale blue-green, with a pattern of roses and other flowers. Here, Winsley brings whimsical nature to the heart of downtown Toronto.
Meggan Winsley’s piece at Queen Street West and Portland Street. Photo: Bronwen Cox
On the other side of the box, against the same floral background, there is a print of an old photograph, a street scene with a jewelry and a book and record store. The street is busy and full of people, as an old car drives by. The picture depicts one of the main locations of the former Canadian record company, A&A records, which used to be located near Yonge and Dundas. Fusing mythical and historical Winsley’s piece is a unique addition to the project.
The reverse side of Winsley’s box at Queen Street West and Portland Street. Photo: Bronwen Cox
Another animal-themed box stands just a few blocks south of Winsley’s. Arwen Giel’s contribution to the project brings pastel pigeons to King West. These stylized, larger-than-life birds rest on a background of pale pink, light blue, white, and grey, forming a pattern of leaves, dots, and solid colors.
Arwen Giel, at King Street West and Portland Street. Photo: Bronwen Cox
Much of Giel’s work focuses on city life, plants and animals, and these pigeons fit into both categories. Based on Giel’s previous drawings, these birds are both wild and urban, a quintessential Toronto species.
The another side of Arwen Giel’s work, at King Street West and Portland Street. Photo: Bronwen Cox
These are just four pieces from this extensive project. If you live close to any of these locations or the other sixteen, I’d definitely recommend donning a facial covering and going for a walk to see one or many of these fantastic works.
*Exhibition information: Open Studio x StreetARToronto Partnership, Group Exhibition, A Celebration of 50 Years of Print and Artist-Run Centres in Toronto, December 1, 2020 – January 1, 2025, various places in Toronto from Queen Street West to the Junctions; please visit their website for the exact locations.