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Civic Impact

St. James Town youth and artists to paint Toronto's tallest mural

A nondescript grey tower in Toronto's St.James neighbourhood is in the process of being transformed into Toronto's newest landmark.

And all it took was a few coats of paint.

200 Wellesly Street E, the city's tallest Toronto Community Housing building, will soon feature a massive exterior mural. Once complete, the mural, coming in at about 250-feet, will be among the largest of its kind in the world.

The project is the culmination of year-long initiative facilitated by Toronto art and public space nonprofit STEPS Initiative. In the summer of 2012, STEPs teamed up with local St. James Town non-profit the St. James Town Community Corner to offer STEPS' Emerging ARTivist program -- a youth capacity program that STEPs brings to different neighbourhoods across the city.

"Through the program we work with young people and expose them to different art forms and help them use art to think about urban design" says Alexis Kane-Speer, STEP Initiative Director. "We provide them with a platform to develop their own public art interventions."

Beginning in the summer of last year, STEPS and the St. James Town Community Corner hosted urban design workshops for children in the neighbourhood. Each workshop was co-facilitated by a lead artist and a teenager from the neighbourhood. 

"Through those workshops we talked about different urban design challenges that St. James Town has" explains Kane-Speer. "The youth really latched on to this idea that St. James Town is really dense and really grey and very concrete. They felt it was really lacking in colour and they felt strongly that they wanted to change that."

After the culmination of the workshops, the youth facilitators brainstormed ways to give St. James Town some much-needed colour.

"They decided they wanted to paint a mural in the same building as we'd been meeting: the home of the St. James Community Corner," says Kane-Speer. " For one problem, the people working at the Corner often complain that no one can ever find them."

"Building the mural there speaks to where the project was built but also lets the Corner (which occupies the main floor of the building) become more of a landmark that people can find."

After getting permission from Toronto Community Housing--owners of the building where the Corner is located--STEPS applied to the Toronto Street Art Program for funding.

Once the proposal was accepted the teen facilitators consulted with community members and an artist facilitator--well-know Canadian artist Sean Martindale--to come up with a design.

The top half of the mural will feature a soaring phoenix and the bottom half a mosaic of vignettes representing stories of neighbour residents.

"The bird represents the rising of St. James Town, the rising above of the stigma that is sometimes attached to the community," says Kane-Speer. "It's about the power of pride in the neighbourhood."

The almost-complete bottom half of the mural was painted by the teen designers and other St. James community members; the top half is being completed by professional mural artists working from suspended platforms hung from the top of the building. 

Kane-Speer anticipates the mural will be completed by early September, after which STEPS and the St. James Corner will host an official unveiling.

"There's so many grey tower communities that are lacking in public art…Now when people look up at this building they will see their own community reflected in it."

Writer: Katia Snukal
Source: Alexis Kane-Speer, STEPS Initiative 
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