Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Toronto artists do it on the street

In an alleyway near Queen and Bathurst streets, Toronto artist Mike Parsons stood in front of a giant mural. What was once a brick wall had become a canvas for his artwork.

"This was a huge process,” Parsons said. “The first thing was priming the wall white, which I did with giant poles.”

Hired by the owner of the house with the brick wall, Parsons created the mural using a 40-foot ladder and a few hundred dollars worth of white and black paint. He worked his way across the wall, section by section.

“I basically would paint about 40-by-five-feet a night,” he said. “It took about 40 nights in total to complete.”

Over the last decade, Parsons, who works under the name Hey Apathy!, has completed three graphic novels and over 10 major gallery installations. He’s also done numerous public wall murals and street art performances.

He explained why he prefers street art over gallery work.

“The commercial side of the galleries could get a bit trying; they would tell you what to do, what size to paint, what to paint, and ask you to do more of what sold last year,” he said. “The streets were a way that I would have complete control and freedom over whatever I did.”

Eric Cheung, another Toronto artist and collaborator with art group AT.AW., sides with Parsons.

“When I have a gallery show, it’s very anti-climactic; you put it on the walls and a couple of people see it,” Cheung said, “(but on the street) if you have a good idea, you could just toss it out there … It’s not squirrelled away or hidden.”

Jack Cassady, an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, acknowledged some of the benefits that street art has over gallery work.

“It gives the artist an opportunity to experiment without pressure from public or commercial galleries,” Cassady said. “So they can be more individual; they get out their voice.”

Unlike Parsons, Cheung prefers to do street art without anyone watching. He often takes to the streets very early in the morning, posting textile images of his characters - dubbed The Orphans - on utility poles or plywood at construction sites.

“I like the fact that when you throw stuff on the street, it’s this idea of it being free,” he said. “If you associate it with somebody or some event … people start thinking about other motivations rather than simply this person just putting work on the street for you to enjoy.”

Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing magazine, supports the type of DIY street art that Parsons and Cheung do. He recalled a time when he was walking through Little Italy and noticed pieces of cardboard with fruit illustrations affixed to the lampposts.

“You could clearly see someone was doing this intentionally,” Blackett said, “for no other thing than just to catch the odd person’s attention and question what it was.”

Getting people’s attention is what Cassady said a street artist’s reputation depends on.

“The only way you’re going to get anything happening in the street art (culture) is if you draw attention,” he said. “If you don’t draw attention, nobody is going to notice you.”

Although Cheung says it’s great when people find out who he is and want to know more about his projects, he’s not trying to convey a political message.

"I'm just trying to create a more interesting urban environment," he said. "It's funny. In Toronto, the street art is always very much about a very political idea … There's a couple arguments I've had where it shouldn't be as demanding of a message as some people would like it to be."

Parsons has a different approach. As he walked around the gallery (at 401 Richmond St.) displaying some of his paintings, he described one of the common themes in his art.

“The idea is that the city is the gear and it's up to all the people to propel it,” he said. “If each person takes responsibility for their actions, then that's a good place to start … Even by not doing anything they have an effect.”

As a self-represented artist, Parsons promotes and sells his own artwork. He also built the website for his business from scratch.

He explained why he chooses to do all of the work himself.

“All of those are jobs that could be done by various people to make it work, but it can’t always be done the way that I want it to,” he said. “Instead, I pace myself and do it all myself and things end up being more rewarding that way.”

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