'Surprise' murals on West End shutters turn crime-prevention measure into public art

Two businesses are sporting the first colourful examples of a new pilot project led by the West End BIZ, in the hopes of turning shutters on closed Winnipeg storefronts into pieces of public art.

Artists in West End BIZ shutter art program completed first paintings in Winnipeg neighbourhood this summer

Annie Beach, left, and Brianna Wentz stand in front of one of the shutters they painted at Sorrento's on Ellice Avenue. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Walk by Sorrento's Pizza on Winnipeg's Ellice Avenue during the daytime and you might not notice the difference.

But if you stroll by the restaurant after closing you'll see three new pieces of art on display.

They're painted right onto the shutters blocking the restaurant's windows and show bright, colourful images of coastal Italy, complete with a lemon orchard, a turquoise sea and a glimpse of the village of Positano.

"It's like a surprise mural," said Annie Beach, who painted the pieces in partnership with fellow Winnipeg-based artist Brianna Wentz in August.​

The artwork is among the first examples of a new pilot project led by the West End Business Improvement Zone, in the hopes of turning shutters on closed storefronts into pieces of public art.

One set of shutters at Sorrento's on Ellice Avenue shows a scene of Positano, Italy. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Gloria Cardwell-Hoeppner, executive director of the BIZ, said the idea first came up last year.

After speaking to community business owners, the group decided to move forward with shutter paintings at Sorrento's and Unger Management on Sargent Avenue.

The artists met with business owners to decide on a vision and then finished the paintings late last month.

Now those projects are done, Cardwell-Hoeppner said the BIZ has already heard from five more businesses that want shutter art. To begin with, they're hoping to expand down Sargent and Ellice avenues.

"I think as we put more shutter art up, there will be even more [interest]," she said.

Artists Annie Beach and Brianna Wentz worked with the business owners to come up with a vision for the shutter art. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Travis Unger, owner of Unger Management, said the idea seemed like an opportunity to give back to his community. The inside of his business is filled with local art so the shutter art seemed fitting, he said.

His shutters now depict a sunset scene at a lake in autumn, with Group of Seven-style trees and a sailboat called the Schemma — the same as his own boat.

"We love this community.… It is our home, and it's a very diverse and colourful place as far as the people and the residents," he said.

"Seems natural to reflect that in murals and artwork, I think."

Beyond beautifying, the projects are also intended to help curb graffiti in the area. Cardwell-Hoeppner said the BIZ's many other murals in the area aren't often defaced.

Gerry Lomonaco, owner of Sorrento's on Ellice Avenue, stands in front of a panel of the shutter art on his building depicting an Italian lemon orchard. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Gerry Lomonaco, who owns Sorrento's, said the restaurant's formerly plain white shutters were an "easy target" for graffiti.

They were installed roughly 20 years ago to prevent vandalism to the windows, which he said has happened few times over the 43 years his business has been there. A brick was thrown through a window once, and even a can of tomatoes.

Since the shutters were painted, Lomonaco said he's had positive feedback from the public.

"People who've driven [by] or seen [the paintings], they'll come and say, 'Oh, we saw your shutters and it looks really cool, it looks really neat.'"

Travis Unger, second from left, stands with the Unger Management team in front of the lake sunset scene on the building's shutters. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

There are challenges that come with painting the shutters. The artists used high-quality outdoor paint and the BIZ included maintenance in its planning, Cardwell-Hoeppner said.

The organization will also monitor the existing art to see how it weathers, and is considering adding a vinyl coating to finished pieces.

The heat makes the latex paint turn gummy when it's wet, Wentz added, and a thin application was needed to combat that and make sure the shutter mechanism would stay clean.

There's also the challenge of painting for hours outside in the sun and trying not to block people on the sidewalk.

All that comes with the added concern of needing to settle on an idea that fits the visions of the BIZ, the business owners and the artists, and that all three groups hope will be enjoyed by the public. But Beach and Wentz said putting in that time pays off.

The shutters at Unger Management show an autumn sunset on a lake. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

"We can take the strongest ideas of what everyone [brings] forward, then we can just make an overall stronger piece that's more of a collaboration," Wentz said.

The paintings on closed shutters also turn the security measures, which might remind people of crime, into something positive, Wentz said. For people who don't live in the West End, the art might tackle the perception that the area isn't as safe as others, Beach added.

Both artists said they hope their public artwork brings a sense of pride into the lives of community members.

"I'm very proud of [the West End] and very happy," Beach said. "I hope that passersby feel the same way about the community."


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