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The Art of Transit: the St. Clair streetcar stops are topped off by Toronto artists

For years, the corner of Oakwood and St Clair -- like many Toronto intersections -- has relied on commercial signage for injections of colour and identity. On most grey winter days, the blue and white of a Mac's sign, the purple serif of a second-floor Curves and the fire-engine-red of a Scotiabank logo are the only things that have stood out in a sea of brick and concrete.

But recently, all that changed when a bright, 40-foot-long artwork appeared on the intersection's eastbound TTC shelter. Packed with comic-book references and graffiti-esque doodles, the piece adds fun to a place that has long tended towards function.

This new addition to the streetscape, created by multitasking Queen West artist Mark Laliberte, is one of 24 vibrant artworks that were installed on top of St Clair TTC shelters at the end of November. From Yonge to Keele there's a surprising range of work by 21 artists�from Judith Schwarz's intricate metalwork and Sally McCubbin's glass cityscapes to Sarah Nind's Sidewalk Tango photographs and Panya Clark Espinal's Spirograph-inspired mixed media.

Laliberte is one of several artists involved in the St Clair project who have never created public art before. Since his teens, he's been fascinated by what he calls "hybrid lit" -- a mix of "poetry, comics, fiction and visual art" that's given "equal space and weight and treated in a mashed-up way." As a Windsor teenager in late 1980s, Laliberte expressed this interest through zines and mail art. Now, in addition to creating print-culture-related artworks -- like CMYK murals -- for gallery shows, Laliberte edits Carousel, a hybrid-lit magazine, and collaborates with various publishers on small art books of his own.

When the competition for St Clair's public art project started in 2008, Laliberte felt inspired to make a leap from the page to the platform. He proposed to adapt one of his 7-inch-wide, 32-page booklets -- originally produced in an edition of just 100 copies -- into four ten-foot-wide panels that would be seen by thousands of commuters daily. The result, he says, is like a comic book "chopped up and shaken around." A bird, rendered in black and white in the booklet, turns canary-yellow on St. Clair. A speech bubble on paper turns into a talking head on Plexiglas. Streams of anxious, hand-lettered text from Laliberte's original -- like an expanding stream of "EEEEEEEE"s -- can now be read on two sides instead of just one.

Whether his comics-inspired works are large or small, Laliberte says viewers are what really make them tick. "Comics have this ability to work with language and with imagery, but have something more going on for the reader than either medium could do on its own," he says. This "something more" is what comics experts call "blood in the gutter" -- the reader imagination that gets activated to fill the space in between panels. Though the work on St. Clair is limited to four frames, Laliberte hopes viewers will imagine universes stretching beyond.

According to Rina Greer, lead consultant on this St Clair project (along with co-consultant Catherine Williams), distinctive public artworks like Laliberte's aren't just good for our imaginations, they're good for our infrastructure, too. "It's wayfinding," says Greer, noting that people often tell their subway stops (and now some of their streetcar stops) by their artworks. "Also, if you've enhanced a space, people feel better about it. There's less crime, less graffiti." This is why, she says, the TTC has its own "1% for art" program, a worldwide transit trend that was sparked when the Stockholm subway system introduced colourful station murals in the 1960s.

Strengthened community identity can be another benefit of public art. For instance, Greer says, the high, above-shelter position of the St Clair artworks reflects the way the street is perched above downtown. Also, individual artworks were placed to maximize to their relationship with local sites. Laliberte's cartoons went next to a high school, while Nestor Kruger's Colour Transit, whose visuals change with one's travel velocity, was placed near the Laughton bridge where trains speed by.

Interestingly, some project contributors live in the St Clair area, and their TTC works were inspired by the community itself. Cybele Young, who lives at Christie and Davenport and is showing at Deer Park, created an artwork based on drawings scrawled during her neighbourhood walks. Vid Ingelevics, who lives on Maplewood, delved into archival photographs of 1920s St. Clair track-laying, displaying some at the westbound Silverthorn stop.

Other artists were inspired by the infrastructure that binds communities. Parkdale's Sara Graham has explored urban themes in her art for ten years, and notes that infrastructure, "the backbone of the city," can "sometimes be obtrusive, but we really don't see it anymore." She hopes her bright-orange metal grids at Winona will prompt viewers to "see the city as it exists now as well as possibilities for the city in the future."

For his part, Laliberte says making the jump from private bookshelves to public art has been worth it. After winning the St Clair commission, he brought another creative interest, electronic music, to the streets with his 2010 Nuit Blanche project False Kraftwerk, which was overrun with snap-happy hordes. In public projects, he says, "you lose a bit of the purity of the concept, but it's exciting to have that interaction." On St. Clair, where the art is designed to last decades (not just one decadent evening) he likes "the idea that people over time can just come across the artwork." And, as is inevitable, make it their own.

Leah Sandals is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto.

List of neighbourhoods story covers: Yonge-St. Clair, Casa Loma, Wychwood, Corso Italia-Davenport, Weston-Pellam Park, Junction (Also close to Oakwood-Vaughan, Humewood-Cedarvale, Forest Hill South, Rosedale-Moore Park)
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