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FEATURE: Bringing art to the streets

Our Lady of Grace, done in 2011 by A’Shop
Our Lady of Grace, done in 2011 by A’Shop

Louis-Philippe and I agreed to meet at a café on Masson Street to talk about art. As he reached over the table to take a sip from his cup of hot chocolate, I couldn’t help but notice his hands; they had traces of paint all over them.

Louis-Philippe is a street muralist. At his young age—23 years old—he has already been commissioned to create three wall paintings in both Longueil and Montreal. His most recent work, a mural that extends 50 x 24 square feet on boulevard St-Hélène, is a dynamic display of colours and figures inspired by Hip-Hop culture that tells the story of urban life.

Being a street artist is not an easy job, and it is often misunderstood. Lying on the verge between scorn and praise, this form of art has always been controversial. It chooses borrowed and often illegal canvases that are vulnerable to the same vandalism of which it is accused. It has the streets as its gallery, frequented by thousands of stern and often disapproving critics that demerit its artistic value. And it’s creations  are irremediably bound to fade away under the intemperate Canadian weather, or be eventually destroyed to give way to new blank walls, disappearing without a trace.

Yet, when asked why he had chosen to do street art over a more conventional genre, Luis-Philippe answered with conviction: “To bring colour to the city, to create a reaction, whether it is good or bad. You want your work to be seen, and [you want] art to be on the streets … because that’s where it belongs.”

Artist Hell-P painting a mural in Longueil (hellp-art.com)
Artist Hell-P painting a mural in Longueil (hellp-art.com)

Not long ago, street art, like graffiti, was seen as a delinquent activity that had to be eradicated. Crusading against this form of expression, the City of Montreal spent $3.3 million in the year 2008 alone to clean graffiti and street art from 150,000 square metres of street wall.

However, in recent years, the city has progressively changed its approach. In cooperation with several partners, it has invested in the creation of artistic murals for all Montrealers to see, hiring, on some occasions, the same artists that were once deemed as vandals.

One such partner is MU, an independent, not-for-profit organization created in 2006.  In French, the word “Mue” means “rejuvenation through the shedding of an old skin,” and that is precisely the organization’s mission. It supports and promotes public art in the greater Montreal region through the creation of murals in local communities.

This new approach to street art follows the example of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project, which aimed at doing just the same: encourage artistic expression, and use local talent to bring new life to the most neglected urban spaces of the city.

“It became not only about taking out things, but about producing things; about being active and progressive, and integrating the notion of embellishment [into social policy],” said Emmanuelle Hébert, McGill alumnus and co-founder of MU. “The MU’s mission is about creating an open air gallery in Montreal, and democratizing art by bringing [it] to the streets. No matter where you are, if you’re in Montreal you should be able to see art.”

Mural on boulevard St-Hélène by artist Hell-P
Mural on boulevard St-Hélène by artist Hell-P

Not only is this enterprise trying to support art and local artists in Montreal, it also seeks to promote social change and community involvement in the city.

“When you start embellishing, acting, and doing something nice, it is the igniter to something else. The citizens see their own neighborhood differently. They are proud of it. They get more involved with the community,” Hébert said.

When asked what the biggest challenge had been to the development of such bold initiative, Hébert  answered without hesitation: “to convince people [that we had what it took to succeed]. It didn’t exist [in Montreal]. It was innovative, unheard of, so it was very bold.”

The project was nothing short of ambitious, and Hébert and her associate did not have any experience in the field of visual arts. “We were not from the art world. We knew nothing about murals. The first time, we showed up with a book from Philadelphia and said, ‘this is what we want to do.’”

Yet, their drive and dedication earned the trust of its sponsors.

Interior mural done for a new SIMONS store in Quebec in 2012 by A’Shop
Interior mural done for a new SIMONS store in Quebec in 2012 by A’Shop

“People believed [in it]. They believed in us. They realized we were committed, [and that] we had a clear vision. And we delivered,” said Hébert.

With the cooperation of the private sector, as well as various organizations and government programs, the project has turned out to be a big success.  To date, MU, has created 40 murals, and 35 other-smaller scale community works.

When I grow up, I want to be a kid, done in NDG in 2012 by A’Shop
When I grow up, I want to be a kid, done in NDG in 2012 by A’Shop

The murals’ creators come from many disciplines of the visual arts. Yet, they share a common commitment to creating something for their community. “We work with people who have studied art, or who did scenography. [but also with people] who did their practice in the street. These are [people] that started as graffiti artists, but that developed their own ‘language’ over the years. we don’t have any preconceptions,” Hébert explained.

The legalization of urban spaces for street artists has paid off, as it has given  these artists the opportunity to showcase their talent and counter the negative connotation that street art had acquired over the years in the community. Among these artworks, is the renowned “Our Lady of Grace,” a five storey masterpiece  displayed at the corner of Madison and Sherbrooke Street West in N.D.G. This breathtaking piece of art was A’Shop’s creation, a Montreal-based collective of artists that combine graffiti art and urban aesthetics into their artwork. Year after year, the collective has renewed its commitment to creating open-access art for the Montreal community, and their work currently embellishes multiple spots throughout the city.

What future awaits Montreal’s street artists? When talking about graffiti art, Emmanuelle sees it as an inherent part to today’s culture, as an artistic expression, and as something with the potential for great social change.

“When you look at art history, you realize that the mural is the oldest form of art. People have always wanted to express themselves in public settings … Street art started as an underground culture that has now come into the galleries. [It] is a big trend in contemporary art.” Hébert  said. “A can, like a pen or an airbrush, is a medium. [More than about how you say it,] it is all about what you want to say.”

 

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