From Project Cleanup to Artwork Avenue: The Laneway Project by Joshua Sherman
Kenwood Avenue residents Elly Dowson and Christine Liber had a problem. The unnamed laneway that runs behind their homes was becoming the target of tagging—the type of graffiti where someone scrawls their alias up on an unmarked building.
Attempts at removing this graffiti from the garages backing out onto the laneway were futile. Whenever one tag was erased, another would soon take its place. “We just realized we were really providing fresh canvasses, it wasn’t going to stop anything,” says Liber, an art-history major.
It was then that she and Dowson started seeing the garage doors in the same light as the miscreants were. “Once you start looking at them like giant canvasses you can’t stop. You just envision what could be,” Liber explains.
So beginning in the fall of 2011, the two friends started painting colourful murals on garage doors to discourage tagging, hoping the art would be a deterrent. In an effort to achieve a critical mass that year, they churned out 21 murals in as many days using paint that nearby retailer Maple Paints donated.
Their plan worked. In the four years that have followed, not a single garage door featuring a mural has been tagged. “It’s transformed our community,” says Liber of the initiative. “This is largely unclaimed, underused urban space, and it went from a place where people drove through and parked their cars to a place where people gather after dinner and watch their kids play and visit with neighbours.”
Others have joined the cause as well by adding their own artistic flourishes. “One day we were walking along,” Liber recalls, “and we noticed that somebody had put very pretty little canvasses up.” She thought it was Dowson’s handiwork. Dowson thought it was hers. To this day neither knows who did it.
Although Liber and Dowson might eye a stark garage door like a nefarious tagger does, their approach differs greatly. They ask for permission to paint and are willing to craft a mural to a homeowner’s taste, too. However, “most people said, ‘Just do what you want,’” notes Dowson, a graphic designer by trade. “As an artist that is such a gift, you know?”
Now numbering about 40, the murals make strolling down the laneway somewhat like visiting a modern-art museum: There are carport pieces referencing the styles of pop artist Keith Herring and Canadian landscape luminaries The Group of Seven, among others.
Though Liber partly chalks up the simple designs to her own artistic inexperience, it is also intentional. Should someone tag over a mural, it’ll be relatively easy to restore. Ditto for cases of seasonal wear-and-tear.
Timewise, each mural takes anywhere from three to nine hours to finish. If Liber had to guess, she’d say she’s spent a thousand hours painting garages in the laneway so far, and she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. “We’re happy to keep going until every one is done,” she says.