A pair of eye-catching and inviting public art installations that highlight Canadian diversity are helping to kick off Toronto’s three-year countdown to the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games on Tuesday.

The organizing committee, TO2015, is hosting a free, daylong public festival of arts, culture and sporting events outside Toronto City Hall on Tuesday to celebrate the countdown. Mayor Rob Ford is slated to officially declare July 10 Pan Am/Parapan Am Day.

Veteran theatre director and arts leader Don Shipley is creative director of arts and culture, festivals and special events for the 2015 Games. He’s building what he envisions as a "bold, unique and transformational" program of engaging, accessible, high-quality art — including a number of original commissions — designed to illuminate and celebrate the Pan Am countries as well as their diverse diaspora communities in Toronto.

"We’ve got one of the most culturally rich, diverse cities in the world," he said, adding that his current role has given him a new appreciation for Toronto.

A new perspective

Fresh Eyes, the inaugural commission for the Pan Am cultural program, and a customized version of the internationally popular Play Me, I'm Yours public piano installation lead Shipley’s first wave of programming.

The cultural program’s advisory board gave unanimous consent to commission Fresh Eyes, a multimedia project created by the collective arrivals.ca, led by artist and curator Devon Ostrom.

"We love the scope of it, we love the intent of it and we see ourselves engaging in it," Shipley said of the work, which celebrates the viewpoints and contributions of new Canadians.

Fresh Eyes has several components, including a series of striking, transparent photos mounted in Toronto City Hall windows. The photos are extreme close-ups of the eyes of new Canadians (largely hailing from Pam Am countries) that peer out at Nathan Phillips Square and, at the same time, into city councillors' offices.

'The deepest way into seeing someone's spirit is through their eyes'—Che Kothari 

The project includes a website, a series of video vignettes about the participants and a column that will be published in the Toronto Star newspaper alongside the birth and death announcements as a way to honour new immigrants who have achieved a momentous change in their lives — in the same manner as birth, death and corporate "new appointment" notices.

The concept is to underline "the value of diverse decision-making in Toronto and make sure City Hall is a place where lots of ideas are welcome — and not only welcome but also conceived and considered properly," Ostrom said.

The project’s lead photographer, Che Kothari, said "the deepest way into seeing someone's spirit is through their eyes and hands," adding that he considered himself as a vessel for the emotions his subjects —  for many their first professional photo shoot — wanted to project.

"I was only a few inches away from [each participant] with a macro lens. To capture that level of detail in their eyes and really tell their stories through their eyes —  I think that visual will really resonate," he told CBC News.

"[Fresh Eyes] obviously has that dual edge: when you’re walking into City Hall as someone who’s a city councillor  or decision-maker, Toronto’s looking at you and this is what Toronto is made of. Looking out [from the councillors’ offices], you’re now looking out with the perspective of a newcomer. "

Born to immigrants from India, Kothari said the project’s theme instantly resonated with him. He also feels that it could be carried out elsewhere in the world.

"This project to me lives in Toronto right now, but it should resonate globally about migration and the movement of people. This is kind of a microcosm of what is happening around the world."

A musical invitation

Having already delighted audiences in cities including Paris and New York, Luke Jerram's Play Me, I'm Yours was a natural fit for Toronto’s Pan Am cultural program, Shipley said.

Don Shipley is planning a three-pronged cultural programming platform:

  • Toronto Electric will encompass free cultural events in large squares and plazas.
  • Aqua Culture will showcase art inspired by water, as well as include discussions, panels and a symposium about water.
  • Higher Ground will feature ticketed performances, including international collaborations between artists from different Pan Am countries, in established venues.

The Toronto edition features 41 playable pianos — one baby grand and 40 uprights — that will be positioned around the city, largely in the downtown region. Each instrument has been painted by a professional artist with roots in one of the 41 Pan Am countries, in the spirit of his or her homeland. One piano will sit on a Toronto ferry, for instance, while another will be stationed at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport.

"I loved [Play Me’s] idea of public engagement. I loved the idea that it was so inclusive in those communities [that had featured them]. I know no one can resist a piano," Shipley said.

British installation artist and sculptor Jerram is set to unveil the Pam Am-tweaked version of his piece in David Pecaut Square at Metro Hall on Tuesday before the individual pianos are shipped out to entice Toronto passersby to tickle the ivories.

"You get this great visual art around the city, but the beauty of it … is that it’s interactive. It invites people to play with it. Whether they play Chopsticks to Gershwin, whether they play classical to ragtime, you get everybody," Shipley said.

"It’s quite wonderful."

Fresh Eyes and Play Me, I'm Yours will remain on display in Toronto through July.