Going Out

TIMELINE: The story behind the cool and colourful murals around Chinatown

The public art project “Chinatown Blossoms” has brought colourful mini-murals to shops and restaurants of Somerset Street West. Here’s how it all came together:

Photo courtesy of Chinatown BIA.
The weather was fine when the murals began popping up around Chinatown last May. Photo courtesy of Chinatown BIA.

Summer 2012
Grace Xin, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, reaches out to the Ottawa School of Art. A long-time fan of the OSA, Xin sees the future of Chinatown as a hub of art and artists. Eventually she connects with Claudia Gutierrez, development officer at the OSA, and presents her with the concept for Chinatown Blossoms, a beautification project that gives students an opportunity to gain experience working for a client while bringing colourful murals to doorways and windows of Somerset Street West.

Over at the OSA, Gutierrez pushes for the development of a course that teaches students about the process of working for a client on a piece of public art, using the Chinatown Blossoms project as a case study of sorts.

March 2013
Eleven artists from the OSA’s three-year diploma program register for the public commission course, which runs from May to June. The curriculum includes various aspects of working with clients, from creating proposals to communicating openly with them, as well as understanding the difference between private and public commissions and how to navigate grant funding.

When the Chinatown BIA hosts an open house later in the spring at the Dalhousie Community Centre, the art students showcase mock-ups of their designs. Community members and property and business owners come to check out the proposed murals.

Photo by Jackson Couse.
China’s most popular export makes its appearance in a doorway. Photo by Jackson Couse.

April 2013
The project hits a wall when project organizers learn that a current bylaw prohibits the painting of murals on the exterior wall surrounding the main entrance of a building. Xin approaches Somerset Ward councillor Diane Holmes, who takes the issue to city council. The project gets the green light, receiving an exemption from the bylaw as a pilot project.

May 2013
Designs are tweaked as students learn about the cultural significance of different images and colours. For example, cherry blossoms symbolize good luck, as do cranes, pandas, and bamboo; it’s considered bad luck, however, to include only white flowers in a mural without other happy colours to balance them out.

June 2013
The paint dries on the last of the murals that dot Somerset Street West from Bay to Preston streets. Colourful designs brighten up many dark nooks around the neighbourbood, and the process continues an ongoing public discussion about the merits of street art. Although Gutierrez’s own mural was defaced one morning, spurring an outcry by residents, the business and property owners are so inspired by the project that many hire the artists to create more murals, even after the project has wrapped up.