Skip to main content

Eight-story mural at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, by the British artist Phlegm.Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Mural, mural on the wall? What used to be a blank side of a 12-storey building at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue is now a giant wall painting and curiosity by the British street artist and illustrator Phlegm. The Globe and Mail spoke with Alexis Kane Speer, the founding director of the STEPS Initiative, a public arts organization, about the large-scale mural and what it means.

Can you give us a quick explanation of the background on the mural and how it came together?

The City of Toronto has a program called Street Art Toronto, which funds much of the high-calibre street art that you're seeing around town. Each year, they support one large international project, to foster cultural dialogue and to gain international attention to a homegrown project. Slate Asset Management, which is developing property in the area of St. Clair and Yonge, realized they had an asset – an empty wall facing westward at a high-traffic intersection.

A blank canvas, as it turns out.

Exactly. And the area doesn't have a lot of public art. It doesn't have a lot of colour. So, the City of Toronto asked us, the STEPS Initiative, if we'd be interested in producing the work. We have experience in these type of large-scale projects, including the world's tallest mural, at Wellesley and Sherbourne. For the building at Yonge and St. Clair, we short-listed 10 artists. With some of the area stakeholders, we narrowed it down to Phlegm.

Besides the catchy handle, why him?

His style is a really good fit for the neighbourhood. It's a sophisticated style, and, aesthetically, it's very different than what we see in the city. He has a history of working in unlikely spaces, which is akin to what we do at STEPS. We try to create cultural space in places that are not thought of in that way.

Did Phlegm have a connection to Toronto?

He had never been here before. We wanted to make sure he was provided with enough cultural context to a create a work which was culturally relevant. Initially, we served as his eyes and ears on the ground. We engaged with area business owners, workers and residents, asking them about local landmarks, about what they think of the area, and about their favourite memories of the area. Phlegm heard a lot of that information and came back with a proposed concept, and the stakeholders loved it.

It's a nifty, urbane piece of work. It reminds me of something you might see in The New Yorker magazine. How would you explain it yourself?

The design over all is a human form overlooking the city. A lot of people don't realize that Yonge and St. Clair is one of highest points of the city. The mural acts a metaphor for the living, breathing nature of the city. The figure is composed of landmarks and recognizable features, such as the CN Tower, the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] and the A-frame houses of the area.

The human form is scrunched up a bit. I saw that as a metaphor for urban density and overdevelopment.

Oh, I don't think so. I think it's a more contemplative pose. You probably saw the original rendering rather than the image of the work itself. Since the rendering, the figure has changed a bit. It's a more upright posture. It's about taking a pause – taking a second look.

What about the rest of city? Any artful public-space initiatives that have you excited?

Personally, I get excited over the community-driven, grassroots stuff. The other day, I was walking down the street. Somebody on the edge of their lawn had built a little house that was a give-a-book, take-a-book library. I have a special place for these smaller-scale interventions. It's a creation of space for more interaction.

What about Luminato and its revitalization of the Hearn Generation Station?

I love festivals. I love what Luminato did. It's exciting, but I'm also interested in the type of small-scale interventions that get neighbours talking. It could be as simple as putting a bench at the end of their property. It's all about making people feel welcome.