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A MUral makeover in the gay village

“Church Street could potentially become one giant art gallery.” —James Fowler

 “We wanted something that would stand long after the barricades and balloons at Pride are taken down,” says Syrus Marcus Ware, explaining the idea behind the Church Street Mural Project, a street art initiative in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood that’s nearing completion.

Led by Ware and Toronto-based artist James Fowler, in association with the Church Wellesley Village Business Association and city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the first-of-its-kind art project will unveil a series of 11 unique murals on 11 buildings.

The campaign, inspired by mural projects in San Francisco and Philadelphia, was conceived by a group of activists who met last year and asked, “Hey, what’s something flashy that we can do for World Pride?” says Ware.

“We wanted something in the community, by the community, that could tell the stories of Toronto’s LGBT communities,” says Ware, a director of youth programming at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Two-spirited. Sex workers. People of colour. Each mural “celebrates a different faction of the community,” says Fowler, whose arts background includes spearheading 10×10, a queer Canadian photography project.

The mural initiative, which took a year to organize and received 69 submissions, was narrowed down to 11 artist teams. The concept for each mural was developed by connecting the artists with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, as well as local elders and activists, from trans activist Susan Gapka to Billy Merasty, who started

Two-Spirited People of the First Nations.

“From that we got some truly amazing stories,” says Fowler.

At drag bar Crews and Tangos, artists Nadijah Robinson and Elixir have already unveiled stylized portraits of drag performers dating back to the 1960s. At the Toronto Community Housing Corporation at 389 Church Street, Red Dress Productions unveiled Ella, a ten-foot-tall female figure holding a red umbrella (a symbol of sex workers rights) made from thousands of mosaic tiles.

It’s a fresh look for a neighbourhood under siege by high rents and big-box stores. “Church Street isn’t dying, it’s changing,” says Fowler. “Visually, we’re claiming ownership.”

When Ware and Fowler approached building owners about the project, the resounding response each time was, “Sign me up,” says Fowler. Supply costs were covered by Dulux Paints, Home Depot and Scafom Canada; Bank of Montreal, Tourism Toronto and Street Art Toronto also provided funding.

 The project is slated for completion in early May 2014, just in time for World Pride. “We want people who are coming from Zimbabwe to Tokyo to see that, yes, Toronto is a world [class] city that has diverse communities, including a village,” says Ware.