Kneeling on the wide, brick promenade with a small nub of red chalk pinched between his fingertips, Ian Morris applies the finishing touches to a giant polka-dotted mushroom that turns three-dimensional when viewed through a camera lens.
A pair of curious tourists stop to take a picture and, delighted by Mr. Morris’s optical illusion, slip some coins into a small metal collection box, marked only with the words “thank-you, I wish I could live on smiles alone,” scrawled in yellow chalk on the sidewalk.
For the past seven years, Mr. Morris has eked out a living sketching reproductions of paintings and other creations on the sidewalk of Government Street, surviving on unsolicited donations from kindhearted strangers.
Next summer, if things go according to plan, the city will let him put up a sign and sell postcards of his work to help make ends meet.
“Anything council can do to enhance the ability to help us make a buck, I’m all for it,” Mr. Morris said. “Look around you, it’s a sunny day, there’s lots of people around, but there’s no jugglers, no musicians and no life. If there was a culture of generosity and support the buskers would be here.”
Concerned about the recent decline of street entertainment on Government Street, Victoria City Council is considering changes to the city’s busking bylaws that will allow performers to sell a limited amount of their work on the street and, if they wish, put up small signs soliciting donations.
“If you’re a musician maybe you can sell a CD, if you’re a juggler maybe a DVD or if you’re a chalk artist, maybe some postcards,” said Charlayne Thornton-Joe, council’s downtown liaison, who will bring a motion forward to council on Thursday.
“We want to support the arts, support vibrancy in our downtown and also support the artists; they were saying at times it’s difficult to make any money.”
Artists who work along the Government Street promenade in Victoria must purchase a $25 busking licence that allows them to perform, but prohibits them from selling their work. Signs are prohibited under the city’s sign bylaw.
Street performers in Vancouver are not allowed to put up signs, but they have been permitted to sell CDs and videos of their work “for many years,” said Grant Goff, the city’s street furniture program manager.
A few blocks from Government Street along the Lower Causeway of the Inner Harbour, buskers licensed by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the property’s owner, are allowed to sell CDs and display signs soliciting donations.
The lack of a more flexible regulatory scheme on Government Street has long been a thorn in the side of local street performers.
When Mr. Morris started drawing his portraits in 2004, the bylaw department declared his art form illegal, arguing that he was defacing city property. “I actually went before city council and convinced them to incorporate chalk artists into the bylaw,” he said.
Local marimba bands, such as the eight-piece group Chikoro Marimba, were once a popular draw along Government Street. But in 2007, the city effectively banned the marimba bands during peak hours with a bylaw amendment limiting the number of members in any group to five.
Ken Kelly, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said the proposed bylaw changes should encourage more “professional” performers to ply their trade on Government Street and restore some of the “ambience” that’s been missing in recent years.
In July, Victoria played host to an international busking festival that drew close to 75,000 people, and organizers are already planning a bigger and better event next year, he said.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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