Arts & Entertainment
4 min

The Pan Am Path painted gay

A Toronto mural project inspired by LGBT people in sports and family, just in time for the games

The Album mural is inspired by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the artist’s desire to open up conversation around the ideas of family. Credit: Martin Reis

“Recognizing the contributions of LGBT people in sports while challenging traditional representations of athleticism,” is what inspired Album, a large- scale mural in the Pan Am Path. Artists Anna Camilleri and Tristan R Whiston helped create a series of mosaics to create the mural painted on pillars, which is now in display under the Dundas Street West bridge near Lambton House.

We spoke with the artists to learn about their inspiration, their ties to the LGBT community and why the heck their work is on display in the middle of nowhere.

Daily Xtra: What was the creative seed behind the the paintings on the pillars? Were there any other public artworks that inspired you?

Anna Camilleri: The site has great architectural interest – vertical lines and arches, interwoven and intersected by the Humber River and watershed forest. The pillars aren’t flat or two-dimensional, and the artwork itself encompasses three pillars so the site itself embodies dimensionality, layers, multiplicity, and that’s how we think about family.

The project is inspired by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our desire to extend it and open it up.

What we wanted to do was to amplify what we believe is at the heart of Article 16, which is the human right for people — all of us — to form family. To not limit recognition of family to men and women, but to make it a human right for all people of all genders, including our transgender community members.

For us, the artwork is about the right to choose, define and create our families. Family [that] isn’t bound by homogeneity, or biology or legal recognition, but by love, choice and accountability to one another.

What was is the significance of this specific location?

Tristan R Whiston: The whole idea behind the Pan Am Path is that the existing trails and paths in Toronto (Humber trail, Martin Goodman trail, Don River trail etc) will be joined into one continuous 83 kilometre multi-use trail. The path was divided into “zones” by the organization the Friends of the Pan Am Path, and artists and arts organizations were commissioned to “animate” each zone — basically it is intended as a legacy for Torontonians after the Pan Am games has come and gone — a place where citizens can be active and outside and where it doesn’t cost people anything to use the trails. Arts Etobicoke (the host organization who invited RDP to lead the art project) was assigned “Zone 4” that runs along the Humber River between Scarlett Road and Berry Road, a distance of about 5 kilometres. Anna and I, along with Shira Spector from Arts Etobicoke, explored the zone many times – we walked it, biked it, ran it and tried to identify an area close to an entrance to the path that would lend itself to public art. The site itself is stunning — a very high bridge, tall pillars, a beautiful river flowing by, no traffic noise . . .

What was the process that took them from initial idea through to completion?

Camilleri: I developed the concept and the design. A team of artists contributed to the making of the artwork — a mosaic team and a site and paint team. Tristan led the site work and I led the mosaic building. Project artists include Katie Yealland, Wy Joung Kou and Kike Olajumoke. The project also involved some social engagement including two arts-based research sessions — one with adults, mostly elders, and the other with children. We talked about the site itself, family, including LGBTQ spectrum communities in the definition of family, making room for more of us, and aesthetics and visual representation including abstraction, realism and magic realism. We also facilitated one mosaic-making session with children, and we hosted a q+t (queer and trans) mosaic bee — like a quilting bee, only mosaic — with our friends and family.

Did you encounter any resistance?

Whiston: Funny you should ask that question . . . one of the other things we were exploring in the artwork is a response to Article 16. Amnesty International Toronto is doing a project called Urban Canvas and are trying to have one mural created to represent each of the articles in the declaration. Article 16 essentially speaks to every person’s right to marry and form families — the actual language is quite archaic 1950s speak, and we wanted to get to the spirit and heart of the article and of the work amnesty does, and look at what the idea of family and marriage means in 2015 in Toronto and internationally. In our public consultations, people spoke a lot about diversity of family units — certainly LGBTQ families, but also (and including) single parent families, blended families, multi-parent families, no kids, lots of kids, intergenerational families, interracial families, foster families, chosen families, etc. And the people we spoke to echoed our desire to reflect this in the artwork. So, at this stage we encountered no resistance and only enthusiasm and excitement. When I spent three weeks working onsite (the artwork is a mixed media piece of paint and mosaic components, so Anna was mostly off-site creating the 44 mosaic elements, and I was mostly onsite doing the painting) I had numerous conversations daily with folks passing by. Overall, people were enthusiastic about what they were seeing and hearing, and had fun trying to find their family represented in the design. I did not encounter any resistance to the design or the ideas we were exploring.

However — and this was such a surprise to me, call me naive —  in the middle of the night someone snuck down to the artwork armed with a can of spray paint and vandalized the piece. The fact that someone tagged the art was not a surprise, what was the great surprise was that the person or persons who tagged it went back twice and wrote only homophobic slurs on the art: “Heterosexuals only!” “Be happy NOT gay” “Straits only” and “Heterosexual Pride day!” (yup that’s what we need!); the second time they went back it got quite crude. This was reported to us by an elementary school teacher who had taken his class down to the artwork to see it and to discuss the ideas in the piece . . . I am sure it did actually turn into quite a teachable moment. At some point, others started responding more positively (also with spray paint) . . . so, yes, some very public, and hateful resistance by at least one person and the artwork has become a sort of message board. The City of Toronto has a policy of hate-graffiti removal within 24 hours — so the graffiti has been removed but the artwork is considerably damaged. We will soon repair it.