Turning northeastern Ontario cities into outdoor art galleries

Sudbury is home to Canada’s largest mural. Sault Ste. Marie launched a mural pilot this summer. North Bay is currently mulling creating a new mural. Here’s why municipalities are mad for murals
By Nick Dunne - Published on Dec 09, 2019
The mural on what was formerly St. Joseph’s Health Centre, in Sudbury, is Canada’s largest. (Courtesy of Up Here)



SUDBURY — Above the still water of Sudbury’s Ramsey Lake, on the craggy edge of the Canadian Shield, a splash of colour stands out against the white winter backdrop. This summer, the weathered exterior of St. Joseph’s Health Centre was painted with a blend of blues, reds, yellows, and greens and dotted with butterflies, transforming the derelict building into Canada’s largest mural.    

The $50,000 public-art piece is the most ambitious project to emerge from Up Here, an annual music and art festival that’s been held in Sudbury since 2014. The mural, the work of Los Angeles-based artist RISK, is 74,000 square feet, required 3,255 litres of paint, and took 20 days to complete. But, although the mural is unique in terms of scale, public art is a growing presence in northeastern Ontario as more cities embrace it to revitalize downtown cores, increase foot traffic for businesses, and retain youth.

“We don't have as much public art as in Toronto or Montreal or other big centres,” says Up Here co-founder Christian Pelletier, “but we have a density here that that is really tough to replicate even in those big centres.” Walk around the Nickel City’s downtown core, and you’ll spot many of Up Here’s commissions, which together make up an outdoor urban art gallery.

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For Pelletier, the mural reflects the complicated character of the city. “It has been a rough and tough industrial town with a dark history of mining in certain sense. But it's also a city that latches on to hope quite nicely with the re-greening efforts,” he says, referring to the Sudbury Protocol, an internationally recognized conservation effort aimed at countering the effects of industrial pollution.

Some residents initially expressed doubts about the St. Joseph’s project, saying that the money should go elsewhere and that the land needs to be developed— and the paint for the mural was stolen a number of times. But Pelletier says that, since it went up, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Public-art plans are also being hatched in North Bay. Alix Voz, director of the WP Kennedy Gallery, is in talks with the city to create a mural at the Capitol Centre, an entertainment venue. Voz grew up in Sudbury but moved south after high school to pursue a career in the arts. When she was younger, she says, “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, I need to get out of here. I need to move to a big city. There's nothing happening in my town.’” She noticed a big change when she returned to the north.

“Everybody's suddenly now claiming that they were born there,” Voz says. “I know I was born there, and that's all you say to people now: ‘I was born in that hospital, the one that's all colourful.’”

Getting youth invested in their hometowns is a key regional concern, says Todd Fleet, arts and culture coordinator at Future SSM, a branch of the City of Sault Ste. Marie that kicked off a mural and public-art pilot project this summer. “From our stakeholder engagement, we were finding … youth really didn't feel like they had a voice,” he says, adding that the initiative “is an opportunity for them to really be involved and guide what's coming in the future.”

Future SSM involves youth in its projects: for example, school-aged kids worked on a mural at the GFL Memorial Gardens, the city’s major rink and community centre, and younger artists were matched with established painters and muralists during the summer pilot project. Next year, the Future SSM pilot project will expand into an arts festival, and Fleet says that it will ask veterans to work with and mentor local artists. In Timmins, the Misiway Milopemahtesewin Health Centre recruited artist Mique Michelle to help kids paint a mural outside the Porcupine Advance printing shop.

Though municipalities have taken a greater interest in these projects, they still face challenges. The process through which projects are approved isn’t always straightforward, Voz says — that’s why she’s helping to draft a public-art policy for the city. “It's been amazing because I know that these jobs [creating public art] will then have properly paid artists,” she says. “And it'll create more synergy within the city for the creative industry.”

And, according to Josh Ingram, general manager of Sault Ste. Marie’s downtown association, businesses also stand to benefit: foot traffic downtown has increased since the pilot got underway, he says, and businesses along the Sault’s Queen Street have gotten a boost. The foot traffic generated by the mural outside the association’s building “has been outstanding,” says Ingram. “I can tell you from different members who have been down here ... the difference between 2018 and 2019 has been staggering.”

Back in Sudbury, Pelletier has observed a similar rise in Up Here’s festival attendance. “We doubled our attendance since our first edition in 2015,” he says. “We had 10,000 visitors this past summer. Our tourism numbers also increased. Out-of-town attendance has climbed every year, from 12 per cent in 2015 to 29 per cent last year.” He notes that it draws world-renowned artists but says, “As much as it’s about individual artists, it's also about growing the creative sector in northern Ontario.”

As for the St. Joseph’s mural, Pelletier says, “It might be there for a couple of years, but it'll eventually come down,” as the building itself will eventually be demolished. But, he adds, it’s “going to leave permanent conversation behind.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the St. Joseph's mural was 8,000 square feet; in fact, it's 74,000 square feet.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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