Embrace public art to add surprise and whimsy to New West spaces


Art is a funny beast. Viewed in defined “art-appropriate” spaces – think hotels, building lobbies, hospitals, cafés and galleries, there are few styles, works or mediums that we don’t appreciate. From contemporary painting, large-scale black and white photography, avant-garde sculptures and mixed-media work, to hard to interpret audio pieces, we accept it as art, as something that is inherently good for us to be surrounded by – even when we don’t understand it.

As artist Martyn Reed of Stavanger, Norway said in an interview about public art with Juxtapoz magazine, “Art, on a philosophical level, even academically, is good for people; it improves the quality of people’s lives, which is why we put art classes in prisons; we have art in hospitals because it makes people’s lives better, it’s present in pre-op and in every ward, there are pictures. Everyone believes this, you don’t get people saying, ‘It doesn’t improve the quality of people’s lives.’”

Yet despite the positive and emotional connection many of us have towards art, we neglect how important the context in which we perceive it truly is. Viewed outside the confines of its regular context, we lose that same openness and acceptance of the quirky, hard to understand or strange. The vibrant club poster stapled to a telephone pole is no longer an ink print, but a nuisance. The series of wheat paste concert posters is no longer pop-art, but vandalism. The large-scale photographs stuck to a blank wall, they too cease to be considered art.

Public art or art created in and for the public sphere gets a bad rap. It can polarize a cohesive community into those who are up for a bit of whimsy in the public domain and those who are vehemently opposed to it. Of the diverse forms of public art, few are as vilified as graffiti. For many, the mere mention of the word invokes images of hastily spray-painted train cars, or sprawling script along vacant walls. Graffiti is akin to neighborhood blight.

And while in some cases graffiti does represent a lack of respect for a place, there is the flipside of the graffiti spectrum. Street artists and residents collaborating painstakingly over a period of hours or days, to create art for the betterment, interest and enjoyment of the community in which they reside.

This role of community generated public art or graffiti as social and economic tool is not often talked about, but can have a huge impact on a city. In an open letter to the mayor of Stockton, California – a fledgling city on the verge of bankruptcy, M. Revelli the editor of art magazine Juxtapoz, cites examples of Stavanger, Norway, Bristol, United Kingdom and New Orleans as examples of cities that have embraced an attitude of tolerance and openness to public art and are reaping the benefits of dollars spent in their cities. The influx of money to the city comes in the name of tourism as curious locals, art enthusiasts, bloggers and others in the art world travel to experience the works in these cities.

Another such city that has embraced graffiti and public art as civic tools is the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In that city, well-known street artist Steve Powers, completed Love Letter, a series of murals along the elevated subway line to help give a sense of pride to residents from the different neighborhoods in which the murals were installed.

Discussing his experience in Philadelphia to Juxtapoz magazine, Powers explains, “Nobody saw any benefit of the project for their neighborhood. Once we got to painting and people saw the results, they got excited about their neighborhood again. Everything has been great ever since. And when they see people coming by daily to take pictures, the equation becomes very apparent. More people coming to the area translated to more foot traffic, which translates to more businesses.”

In addition to the economic benefit to the local economy of embracing public art, the social benefit of a community creating, appreciating and discussing art is invaluable. In a unique public art project, French artist JR – winner of the prestigious TED Prize, had the idea to empower people and strengthen communities around the world by encouraging widespread participation in a global art project, The InsideOut Project.

Sourcing co-creators from around the world, individuals or groups upload black and white portraits of themselves that subsequently get turned into large-format posters (they’re big, very big) and returned to the individuals to be posted in their own community. Using only their face to share a message, JR’s wish is to inspire people from all over the world to indulge their inner artist, taking pride in their communities ultimately making them better more interesting places to live.

Closer to home, New West is in the midst of a civic renaissance of sorts. After years of slow growth, the city is adding a more diverse and interesting culinary component to its reputation as an affordable city with great quality of life, good transportation, loads of amenities and a strong sense of community. While the depth of offerings is still developing, people are now moving to, coming to and staying in New West because of its food offering. What would the impact be if New West added a dynamic public art component to its urban fabric – reclaiming vacant spaces and knitting a sense of surprise into our public spaces?

Imagine a collaborative series of murals along the back of the buildings that face the Skytrain, short-run sculpture installations in parks or other public spaces, art installations in vacant commercial storefronts or our own chapter of the InsideOut Project. If only our city had disused wall space, vacant lots, empty storefronts or large unused areas along the waterfront … hmmm.

While I’m no artist, I appreciate the arts –no matter where on the brow they may fall, and would like to see a greater sense of playfulness and surprise in our public spaces. I am interested in helping push New West towards being a city that embraces the economic and social potential of public art through an open attitude towards it. We need not strive to be an art capital, just a community of engaged citizens who embrace the potential of the arts and aren’t afraid of a more dynamic and whimsical public sphere.

As for those black and white portraits through the InsideOut Project, mine arrived in the mail a few weeks back and all I need to do now is paste it up. Group exhibitions are always better than solo efforts. Get in touch with me if you’re interested in a group effort or check out http://www.insideoutproject.net

Brand New West: Time to tell the world about the new New West

While heavyweight cities such as New York and Paris have iconic buildings and centuries of thriving culture to convey their identity and sense of place, smaller less-prominent cities must rely on other measures of soft power such as music festivals, public art projects, easy-to-use bike share systems or other unique methods of building their municipal brand. Though branding on a city scale may seem artificial or contrived, it is an important part of attracting new residents and businesses and building a sense of identity – conveying who we are and what we stand for.

Despite a host of great amenities contributing to a strong quality of life, a mixture of heritage and modern architecture and a beautiful location along the Fraser, New West doesn’t distinguish its own distinct identity, independent of being a suburb of Vancouver as well as it could. For many unaware of the new New West, the city is still synonymous with bridal shops, sketchy transit stations, a love affair with its own history and rough pubs. As a proud resident of New West, I often find myself explaining what life is actually like here, giving friends an idea of what brand Nouveau West stands for. Few are aware of the transformation that has been underway for some time and are astonished to hear about a waterfront park, busy market, improved culinary landscape and diverse population.

Much of this misguided perception is due in part to a tug of war mentality between what New West was – a quaint mill city with royal roots – and what it has become – a dense, diverse and increasingly more interesting place to live. In many ways, New West’s reinvention is similar to that of many smaller rust belt cities in the states that have used their industrial pasts to attract young diverse population of entrepreneurs, artists and others in the creative industry.

Though almost three times as big as New West, Chattanooga, the fourth largest city in the state of Tennessee, is using its look to improve its brand – the look of its communications that is. For just over a year, local typeface designers Robbie de Villiers and Jeremy Dooley have been developing Chatype, a font developed in Chattanooga for Chattanooga.

Both established and accomplished designers, the pair felt that the time was right for Chattanooga to have its own font, to improve its branding and to help convey the energy in the city. Not wanting to ignore the city’s past, de Villiers and Dooley consulted with historians to consider important historical influences on the design of the font. In Chatype, they incorporated aspects of Chattanooga’s industrial past, while giving it clean lines and a modern touch that allude to the city’s creative future.

While the font is still in development, it has garnered much support from the local and international community. The city itself hopes to use it in their communications – from bike lanes and streets signs, to city memos and other documents. Local businesses as well will have the opportunity to use the font for their own signage, bringing visual continuity to streets across the city. Internationally, branding and marketing experts with Monocle magazine and Wink Creative, have applauded the work of the pair and think that it could have a strong impact on the city’s future.

Though New West might not need its own font per say, it will certainly benefit from similar small-scale resident driven initiatives that convey a message about our city, what we think about it and us as a group of people. With the River Market supporting local initiatives through their ONE program, it is possible for just about anyone to get a tiny idea off the ground. Whether it be greening a small patch of a neighborhood, creating a small public art project, or supporting local businesses, the more unique ideas we put together that transform the city, the stronger the sense of what this city of ours is and what it means to live here will be.

The Royal Smelly City

A view of downtown New Westminster. Photo: Briana Tomkinson
A view of downtown New Westminster. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

Cities have their own vernacular. Some boast unique architecture, a common sense of style and still others, a mode of transportation favoured by the citizens. Certain cities, however have their own scent or combination of scents – both good and bad.

From the pungent aroma of spices in the souks of Marrakesh; the salty air of West Coast cities; the crisp buttery smell of the croissants in Paris to the roasted smell of a local cafe in Portland these smells serve as landmarks and add to our sensory experience of a neighbourhood or city. So close your eyes and picture yourself at 6th and 6th – any odours standing out? Now how about in the middle of Queen’s Park – inhale deeply. Down by the Quay – is that a hint of tugboat diesel? Tell me, what does this city smell like?

That is the question I’ve been asking myself after coming across a unique children’s book called New York, PHEW York. Written by Amber Jones, a hotel concierge working in Times Square, the book is a scratch-n-sniff guide of New York featuring some of the pleasant and not so pleasant smells unique to the city. From pizza, hot dogs, churros and other such tasty delights, to the ever-present stench of garbage and sewer steam common across the five boroughs.

While New West doesn’t have the density of life present in New York City, it does certainly have its own aromas – some long-standing others newly emerging. Living in the downtown area of New West, the smell of crispy fried batter of a certain fish and chip shop comes to mind, as does the earthiness of the river along the quay. Another scent that stands out is the dampness of the leaves and trees crackling beneath my feet on early morning runs through Queen’s park. And with the River Market hitting its stride, new fragrances seem to be emerging all the time. The sour yeast smell of freshly baked bread and smoky BBQ being two standouts in my eyes – I mean nose.

Be it New York City, Vancouver or New West, each of these urban environments has its own sensory fingerprint. And while New York’s imprint might be made up of skyscrapers, honking horns and the smell of churros, New West has its own unique sensory profile and it includes more than just paper pulp. What does your New West smell like?

Urban farming: seeding a movement

A view of Neal's urban garden. Photo: Neal Michael
A view of Neal's urban garden. Photo: Natalie Whiteway

“You look like you could use a beer man!”

Though I certainly appreciated the beer he promptly offered me, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, despite what it might have looked like. Kneeling on all fours in an overgrown planter in the parking lot of Burger Heaven, a small spade in hand tearing irregular sized chunks of weed infested sod out while a light rain fell, I was taking the first few steps to becoming part of the burgeoning urban gardening movement.

Since moving to the downtown area of New Westminster over three years ago, I had toyed with the idea of seed bombing one of the many derelict areas near the tracks or guerilla gardening in the unused parking lot across from our condo. The planter at Burger Heaven, however offered an ideal location given its proximity to our apartment and generous size. Motivated by an interest in urban farming projects in cities across North America and a promise to myself to be more action-oriented, I decided to indulge the itch to grow something and go for it. After a few e-mails to the owner of Burger Heaven and a couple of meetings, I began working on the garden.

A growing movement

Beets harvested from Neal's garden. Photo: Neal Michael.
Beets harvested from Neal's garden. Photo: Natalie Whiteway.

Urban gardening has been getting a lot of press these days, most notably for its role in helping cities improve their urban environment, while also providing fresh meat, fruits and vegetables to cash-strapped citizens trying to reduce their rapidly increasing food budget. With global energy demand rising, food costs around the world have also risen substantially making gardening an attractive and reasonably easy way to offset costs. Given that the average Vancouverite (and one can only assume resident of New West) requires approximately 7 hectares to feed him or herself, it would be next to impossible for an urban farmer to grow all the food he or she needs year around. However, what they do grow helps to lowers their household food budget, while also serving the city in a variety of ways.

An increase in green space provided by parks and urban gardens can help cool down a city by as much as 4° Celsius due to the cooling effect of water evaporating from plants. As well, food grown or raised locally cuts down on the emission of CO2 associated with the global food trade, as it doesn’t need to be shipped or flown in from another region. And though sometimes overlooked as an important factor, urban gardens improve the overall aesthetic of a community. With rich colours and textures, gardens bring to life what are sometimes lifeless urban areas that have been built with little regard to design or good architecture.

In the trench

Given that I knew very little about gardening, beyond some reading online and having attended a one-session balcony gardening course a few years back, the garden is doing surprisingly well. In terms of actual yield, I’ve got a bucket full of radishes, a few rows of lettuce that will be ready soon and some arugula that needs another week or so. The tomatoes, zucchini and beans need a whole lot more sun before they’ll start to really grow.

The benefits of the process have gone well beyond the actual yield. Many people, including the employees at Burger Heaven, notice that the garden has improved the look of the area and cut down on the amount of garbage. Interest from local residents has been great. Many people have stopped by to chat, to give a much-appreciated tip, or just to inquire as to what was going on. Its amazing to see just how many people are interested in gardening and have a real enthusiasm for it.

A call to spades

Though just a small project, the ability of a garden to build a greater sense of community is evident. As New West grows and increases in density, we will need to continue to improve our urban environment through small community driven initiatives and creative thinking. Blank walls, small patches of unused earth or a long abandoned rail line can be re-imagined as canvases, gardens or other projects that will improve the sustainability of the community. Who knows, if you look desperate enough while building your own garden you may just earn a few free beer out of it too. In the words of X-tina, “lets get dirty”.

Aroka Vintage a treasury for unique decor

This is a guest post by Neal Michael, who lives with his wife in the ever-changing downtown area of New West. His favourite things about New West include running through the different neighbourhoods each weekend, the boardwalk, the market, the architecture and his neighbours.

Inside Aroka Vintage.
Inside Aroka Vintage.

Tucked back off Columbia Street, sharing a cozy retail space with quirky Arundel Mansion is Aroka Vintage, a recently opened vintage décor wedding shop. Owned and run by Dawna Graham, a resident of New West, Aroka specializes in the sale and rental of niche décor items and dresses.

Not sure what qualifies as niche décor? Think ornate tea cups and saucers, glass dessert cups, finely decorated china, pewter candle sticks, brass clocks, lamps and more. It’s like stepping into a beautifully curated antique shop minus the dust.

Graham started the business to fill the niche for an increased demand of vintage décor items for weddings and other functions. Having previously owned a home décor business, she witnessed the move away from impersonal, cookie-cutter decorating to a focus on the unique, intimate and classic. Though a long-time collector and self-confessed market junkie, Graham spent just under a year and half to source and select her offerings from all over western Canada. Her extensive selection focuses on what she calls ‘true’ vintage or

More vintage goodness inside Aroka
More vintage goodness inside Aroka

pieces from pre-1970’s. Those pieces that have a story, not an Ikea stamp on them.

Though her shop would easily be at home in a more trendy area of the lower mainland, Graham cited New West as an ideal location for a number of reasons. “I live in New West, my grandfather is in the museum, my grandmother is buried in Fraser cemetery and the architecture. New Westminster was a natural fit.” Anyway, Aroka would be out of place in a newer commercial space. The plank floor, large glass frontage and rear windows all help showcase Graham’s collection.

Whether soon to be married or not, pop by Aroka Vintage for a look at Graham’s beautifully curated selection of vintage items. Who knows, you may just find a reason to get married.

Aroka Vintage is located at 42 Begbie Street. To reach the store, call 778-397-7999.