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Where art and architecture meet: the Beyond 3:30 mural program turns schools into canvases

Murals have a bad reputation as an easy way to cover up large swaths of unsightly walls.

But when architect Barb Lilker and artist Alina Martiros toured Joseph Brant Senior Public School last September, their intention was to bring the rigour of both of their disciplines to an afterschool student art project. The mural had to look like part of the building, not just a way to cover it up.

The first thing the two women realized was that the building, located near Lawrence and Morningside in Scarborough, was a special one, demanding a unique relationship with any art that graced its walls. Designed in the 1970s by prominent Toronto architect Eb Zeidler, the modern building has few right-angles or traditional school-like spaces in it. Instead, Joseph Brant's grade seven and eight classrooms, which position the students quite close to the teachers, surround a unique central hub. Any art project would have to be thoughtful and deliberate.

"They're not just paintings on the walls," says Lilker. "All murals impact the spaces they're in, so we talked to the student about how the spaces are used and what kind of murals would work in them. It's interesting because the students really understand the spaces because they're part of the community that inhabits the building."

A graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at University of Toronto, Lilker has been one of the principals of Lilker Hecht Design Studio for more than 10 years, designing small commercial and residential properties. For the last five years, she's also been writing and teaching art education to young people through the Arts for Children and Youth program, with an emphasis on architecture.. Last year Lilker was approached by Toronto Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), an organization dedicated to helping women advance in the commercial real estate business. The group wanted her to work with students and artists as part of an after-school program called Beyond 3:30. The program, offered in eight designated high-needs schools across Toronto, provides a variety of free activities for middle-school students, some of whom may not have other places to go after hours because their parents are working or otherwise occupied. For a group like CREW, aimed at breaking the glass ceiling in a male-dominated profession, and for an architect trying to foster an appreciation of the built form in young people, the Beyond 3:30 mural program has been a perfect match. The kids get a better sense of the importance of building design and how spaces work, while the girls in particular get first-hand exposure to a female role model.

"It's one of our efforts to get women to come into the industry," says Toronto CREW president Barbara Bees. "There are still not many women on real-estate boards are in senior positions, so this is a way to plant a seed."

Lilker and Martiros start off by conducting something like a design charette with the kids, coming with a location for the mural as well as deciding on its scale, theme and materials. Lilker talks with them about what function the art should have. A mural in a long corridor might have lots of motion, carrying people from one location to another. At another school, a mural in the main entrance was all about bringing the outside inside. In a favourite gathering spot, the work might reflect the diversity of students who hang out there.

"I've learned that the kids really enjoy having a say in shaping their environment," says Lilker. "They are making lasting changes to their school. And it shows that when you take care of something, when you make it beautiful, it has more value."

Martiros has worked with Lilker on two Beyond 3:30 murals, spending two hours a week leading the students in finishing the project. As an artist, her bread and butter has been working with architects, builders and designers to produce large-scale work, so she loves to get ideas from the space itself�as well as from the kids.

"I treat them like young adults, not kids," says Martiros. "There's a lot of physical work to it. I'm a multi-disciplinary artist and we're producing tactile surfaces -- there's not just painting, but sanding and scraping. They're used to digital image-making, doing things with the push of a button. With this, they have to kneel down and reach up."

Having students work together in their school also changes what school is to them, making it more of a community hub where activities above and beyond learning can take place. As they see the mural evolve day-by-day, they develop a better sense of what it means to invest in a large project, and how their school can be a multidimensional part of their community.

"There's a way in which their school becomes part of their home," says Martiros.

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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