Opinion | Paintings mysteriously popped up on poles on this Toronto street. What’s behind the guerrilla art gallery?

You might not find yourself with a reason to walk along Colbeck Street, a nondescript residential road in the Runnymede/Bloor West Village neighbourhood of west end Toronto. It’s mostly lined with single-family homes with tiny front lawns — not really a destination avenue. But if you were wandering on it this week, you’d notice something a bit different.

There, bolted onto a weathered wooden hydro pole, is a painting: an impressionistic field of aquamarine dotted with circular explosions of yellow — perhaps sunflowers. There’s a hard-to-make-out signature on the painting, but otherwise no explanation. Huh.

Then, on the next pole, above the laser-printed posters advertising tutors and seeking lost cats, is another canvas: an angel in earth tones who seems carved out of stone. And then on the next post, there’s more: a haunting night landscape in eerie shades of blue and pink, and lower, at a child’s eye level, a watercolour scene of a church surrounded by trees in radiant shades of green and autumn red.

On every post along the street, more paintings — portraits, abstracts, geometric patterns. Someone has turned this side street into an art gallery. Or a lot of someones, since the range of styles indicates multiple artists.

Small title cards posted near the paintings at the corners of Runnymede and Jane, the eastern and western ends of the corridor, offer a clue to what’s going on: they call the art installation “Doohoo Way,” in memory of the late local artist Linda Doohoo, who we are told created montages out of recycled objects. The sign says local artists are “sacrificing” their paintings in honour of her and other lost friends, to create a “memorial passageway” that is a new “urban gallery.”

Neighbours seem tickled by the new view from the sidewalk: many stop and look, some pulling out phones to shoot photos, some looking around as if seeking out a hidden camera or something else that might explain what’s going on.

There are glossy brochures stapled beside the paintings on some of the posts, advertising an upcoming Art Tour event planned by a group called “West Toronto Artists.” It’s by contacting that group that I learned of how Colbeck Street came to host an outdoor free art gallery.

Sandra Franke, the artist who organized the installation (and performed it with her cordless drill), met me at the corner, and alongside fellow artist Annette Gaffney, walked the length of Doohoo Way, talking about the paintings and the project.

The last few years have been hard for the 42 local artists in her group, Franke says — COVID-19 shut down a lot of the galleries, cafes and other spaces where they’d typically display and sell their work. And the group has seen a few of its longtime members die over the past few years, including Doohoo who had been a core member for a long time.

So 21 of their artists decided to try something different, exposing their neighbours to art in an unexpected place, memorializing their friend, getting residents to stop and consider art in spaces they wouldn’t expect to see it. Maybe also to generate interest in the Art Walk event. Maybe also to get people thinking of buying art by neighbourhood artists to showcase in their own homes.

“Linda worked in obscurity, as we all do,” Franke said. “Nobody really knows who Linda is. So we’re making something of her background, we’re calling it a memorial passageway. Not in a sombre sense, but in a way of, ‘Here we are sacrificing our art for the sake of the common good — for everyone.’”

That notion of “sacrifice” comes not just from the donation of the paintings for free, but from the certainty that over weeks and months, exposed to the elements, these paintings will fade and weather and deteriorate. We stopped to look at one painting, an impressionistic blending of shades of blue that evokes a sky and water, but also has something of the quality of faded denim — an impression underlined by the frayed edges of the cut canvas, which gives it the feel of a well-worn pair of jeans. “This one was pre-damaged,” Franke says. But the others will likely take on a similarly distressed look over time.

I’m someone who really enjoys splashes of fun or beauty or creativity in the city, whimsical objects you encounter in your daily life popping up in places you don’t expect them. One of the first stories I wrote in my journalism career unmasked artist Rocky “Darrell” Dobey, who had mysteriously bolted shellacked books and other art pieces to telephone poles downtown (a project, coincidentally, Franke says, inspired this one). My wife once wrote a story about a guy who had turned a hollow metal lamppost in Kensington Market into a functioning bass guitar available for public use. I loved the idea of that secret laneway swing in Toronto, and enjoyed wandering along graffiti alley behind Queen West where you’d find it.

When you encounter these things during your daily grind, they jolt you out of your routine and make you smile, or think. You consider who put them there, and why they might have expended the time and energy. They’re tiny grace notes in a city that often feels like a place where the stress and expense and overall broken-downness are squeezing out moments of grace.

Here, the paintings rub right up against the mundane stuff of life, the posters stapled beside them and the garbage bins on the sidewalk. The art, and the creative energy it expresses, isn’t walled off in a quiet room built for its contemplation. It is out here in the city, part of its life.

But, I asked Franke: why this little side street? Why not bustling Bloor, which runs parallel a block south, or Dundas through the Junction, which hosts galleries and a street art festival?

“They don’t have wooden poles,” she says.

Aha. A guerrilla outdoor urban gallery may be whimsical and ethereal and creative. But it also needs to be practical. That sounds about right.

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