Alley art blossoms in the neighbourhood of Sunnyside

In the neighbourhood of Sunnyside, garage doors are not just garage doors. They're also blank canvases, just waiting to be turned into art.

Taking a walk through Calgary's biggest outdoor art gallery

Two Sunnyside garage door murals, Onion Head and Ancient Ray, by local artist duo Nasarimba. (Cailynn Klingbeil)

Across Calgary's alleyways, hundreds of thousands of garage doors sit blank and boring. It's a different story in my inner-city neighbourhood of Sunnyside, where they're considered to be blank canvases.

Stroll Sunnyside's back lanes and you'll see more than 20 bright garage door murals, depicting scenes including smiling bike riders, a cross-country skier, neighbourhood dogs and cats, the solar system and even a bathtub. Collectively, they transform monotonous alleyways into a vibrant outdoor art gallery. Let's go explore.

The first alley art in my neighbourhood appeared about two decades ago, when a teenager who wanted to be a graffiti artist was given a garage door to paint. That mural by Aerosolic led to two other painted garages in the same alley. 

Sunnysider Christie Page loved that original alley art. It made her want to paint her own garage door, but she worried what the neighbours would think. 

Then new neighbours moved in, and a few weeks later, they had a friend paint their garage door.

"She just went and did it, and I thought that was really cool. And so that summer I painted mine," Page tells me.

Now, in the back lane behind Page's house, you'll see black and white mountains beneath a clear blue sky on her neighbour's garage, and a white bathtub filled to the brim on Page's garage — a reflection on the June 2013 flood that affected hundreds of Sunnyside homes.

One Sunnyside garage door was turned into a community chalkboard by artist Karen Scarlett. (Cailynn Klingbeil)

In the past five years, Page has become somewhat of an alley art evangelist. She encourages residents to paint their own garages or hire local artists, curates a Google map and Instagram page of Sunnyside's growing outdoor gallery, and hosts Jane's Walks touring garage art. 

Why? Page says art adds joy to the neighbourhood, while also bringing more eyes to back alleys, thus making spaces safer. 

In turn, residents have responded with growing imagination.

A large garage door was turned into a community chalk board in 2017, while a mural completed this summer includes art bursting above the garage door.

There's also an alley art benefit particular to our times: back lanes provide more space for physical distancing than skinny sidewalks.

I've experienced this firsthand, as walking has become one of the few ways I socialize these days. Taking a friend on a wander down Sunnyside's cheerful alleys is guaranteed to bring a smile. 

The newest stop I'm making on such walks is Jennifer Blanchard's garage door, which was painted in mid-October. Blanchard tells me she has long admired other artwork in Sunnyside, and long thought that garage doors are probably the ugliest aspect of any house.

She decided to improve her own garage after neighbours in her alley had their garage painted with a panda this summer.

This Panda by Nasarimba inspired a neighbour to have her garage door painted with an image of a wolf. (Cailynn Klingbeil)

"That was kind of the one that put me over the edge of, well, if they can do it, I'd like to contribute too," Blanchard says. 

So she commissioned local artist duo Nasarimba, who asked her to share colours she liked and any subject matter she had in mind. Blanchard suggested something inspired by the Alberta wilderness, as she's been spending a lot more time outdoors during this pandemic year. The result is a stunning wolf, staring out from a stylized forest.

"On my way to work I've kind of ducked down my alley with no reason, just to look at it and admire it," Blanchard says. "I like that it's bright and it's interesting." 

The situation in Blanchard's alley, of one mural giving rise to another, is common.

"There's definitely been a snowball effect: the more that get painted, the more that will be painted," Page says.

Plus, it's no longer just garage doors receiving a facelift.

"I ask people who don't have a garage door to paint their fence or garbage bin," Page says. "There are so many things that would be better with a mural."

Neighbours have heeded such calls, including Richard and Buff Smith. Instead of painting their garage door, the Smiths enlisted their extended family's help a few years ago to turn the large fence on their corner lot into an eye-catching mural.

"Christie Page has been instrumental in whipping up enthusiasm for this," Buff Smith says. 

The artwork isn't just confined to Sunnyside garage doors. This fence mural is called Bees Please, by the artist Sarah Johnston. (Cailynn Klingbeil)

The Smith's fence mural started as a Christmas gift, with Richard promising Buff a painted fence that their out-of-town children and grandchildren would work on together.

Initially, the couple's son-in-law, a graphic designer, was going to draft the piece, but then his 14-year-old son stepped in. Miró Esteban's design includes mythical creatures in bold landscapes.

Over a chilly Easter weekend, the Smiths worked with seven family members to project the design onto the fence, trace it, then paint it.

The finished piece has attracted a lot of attention over the past few years, Buff says, with neighbourhood kids wanting to know the names of the characters, and people travelling from other communities to have their photo taken in front of the one-of-a-kind fence.

In addition to art on fences and garage doors, Sunnyside also has painted houses and a rainbow under an LRT bridge. This summer, five more public pieces were completed during the Sunnyside Murals Project, and in June, my community's traditionally boisterous Neighbour Day Park Party was replaced with a physically distanced art crawl that featured live art on garage doors. 

Sunnysider Curtis Mah commissioned this piece, called Roots, for his garage door. The artist is Adrienne Tollas. (Cailynn Klingbeil)

One of the artists involved was freelance illustrator Adrienne Tollas. Tollas says she was super excited, and a little intimidated, when Sunnysider Curtis Mah asked if he could commission her to paint his garage door.

"It's a big painted piece that's going to hopefully last for a long time," Tollas says. "It's a privilege to be a part of." 

The piece, titled Roots, reflects the house's history. An early resident founded the longtime local business Sunnyside Greenhouses, and planted and nurtured the backyard plants that still grow today. 

Mah, who rents the house, wanted to paint the garage as a way to contribute to his community. An unexpected benefit, he says, is the mural sparks conversation with neighbours and other passersby.

"A mural is one of the easiest ways to brighten up the space around your community," he says. "I'm surprised more people don't do it."

As art continues to blossom in Sunnyside, I hope to be a part of it. The condo building where I live doesn't have garage doors, but we do have a fence and shed. Like so many other spaces in our city, they're just waiting for a splash of colour and creativity.

More Sunnyside alley art

Sunny Cider by Joshua Clarke. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Magpie Cove by Leya Russell. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Happy Garage by Idan Cohen. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Buck by Karen Scarlett. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Bird by Cam Fawns. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Polar Bear by John F. Ross. (Cailynn Klingbeil)
Wolf by Nasarimba. (Cailynn Klingbeil)


Cailynn Klingbeil is a Calgary-based freelance journalist. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.