These artists have fought for years to show how vital street art is, and the pandemic proved it
Panellists Sandeep Johal, Chloe Chafe, Kristin Flattery and Shalak Attack weigh in on the state of street art
This Is The Reset is a series of panel conversations that look to the future of Canadian art disciplines as we move past everything that has been 2020. Short versions of the panels aired as part of the final season of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists.
Street art is front and centre in this edition of This is The Reset, which looks at the medium from all angles care of panellists Sandeep Johal, Chloe Chafe, Kristin Flattery and Shalak Attack.
Chafe is the co-founder and acting co-director of the Wall-to-Wall Mural + Culture Festival in Winnipeg. This year, the festival had to change everything.
"In March, when we do a lot of our kind of talking with funders and organizers and partners, we knew nothing, as no one did. We didn't even know if painting on the street was going to be safe for our artists with people walking by," says Chafe. "We wanted to design a system so that we could still provide public art but still have everyone completely safe."
That system ended up involving a call for submissions to artists around the world and establishing a curatorial committee to go through the 300 digital entries they received.
Then, they partnered with a local sign company to print large panels that, when hung together, spanned 16 feet. The panels, from artists as far as Egypt and Buenos Aires and as nearby as Sioux Narrows, now adorn walls and buildings all over Winnipeg.
"We were still able to pay artists," says Chafe. "We were still able to have representation from tons of different communities and really just expand curatorially what street art means. We were able to have photography, digital illustration, reproducing oil paintings."
They were also able to include artists who wouldn't have been physically able to be in Winnipeg to make the pieces — opening the medium up to those who haven't been able to create similar large-scale works in the past, Chafe said.
Flattery worked with the festival founders earlier this year on a commission to cover part of Winnipeg's Plaza at the Forks skatepark in a piece called Wokpan Shina, inspired by historical beading and blanket trading that took place at the site where the skatepark now is.
"As a female Indigenous artist, when I was doing my fine arts degree, it was quite limited to a certain path that they wanted you to follow," says Flattery. "I was always about breaking the rules and breaking free of that and really wanted to embrace my culture, and wanted to showcase that in a more modern and contemporary sense and reclaim space."
Flattery's work involves abstracting blankets into large-scale pieces, effectively "wrapping" walls and urban infrastructure in warmth.
"There's a lot of youth that come by, and they see you painting and they ask how they can get involved, or [ask], 'Can I paint a little bit with you?' and it makes me emotional because these kids need that," says Flattery.
Johal's work in Vancouver has caught similar attention.
"I feel that with the South Asian community, you know, the younger generation see me out there doing that as well. And they're like, 'I get to see myself in the world. I get to see myself in public space. I belong here,'" she says. "It changes a lot for people."
Internationally renowned street artist Attack says that type of reaction to artists showing up to paint is new — only in the last five to seven years in some Canadian cities.
"When I moved to Toronto in 2010, when I started painting in different neighbourhoods, I got a really kind of negative input. People would get really scared. Community people would come out, and they were kind of protecting the wall, like, 'What are you doing? This is vandalism. This is graffiti. That's not good,'" she says. "We'd always have to explain."
That's changed in the last 10 years, along with who is buying and paying for murals. Businesses, condominium developers and neighbourhood groups are now constantly commissioning artists to do massive street-art projects all over the country.
And, increasingly, Shalak Attack says, artists are leaving their studios to take up street art.
The field, now, she says, has many more women and many more studio artists, but it's still "a very young culture in Canada."
Watch the full panel above, and watch the entire final season of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists on CBC Gem.