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Boarded-up storefronts in Vancouver became an open-air gallery celebrating the heroes and spirit of Canada’s pandemic efforts

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Will Phillips, at his mural Solidarity Project in downtown Vancouver last month. 'If you see art everywhere, it gives you the perception that this is a different moment and that people are still living.'Photography by Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

After 35 years in business, Kim Briscoe closed her Vancouver picture framing store indefinitely at the end of March, spending a Saturday with friends boarding up the 18 windows of Kimprints.

“I saw my building from a distance as I finished one side, and I was shocked,” she recalls. “It wasn’t the sunniest day anyway, but it was pretty dismal to see the whole store boarded up like that.”

By Sunday, she had an idea: “Let’s paint what’s in the news.” She called some young artists she knows, they called others and, by Monday, they were in the neighbourhood, Gastown, painting. They painted for 10 straight days.

“As the artists proceeded we had our locals standing on the balconies clapping saying ‘Thank you for making it prettier and giving us hope,’ ” says Ms. Briscoe.

COVID-19 has been devastating for artists and retail businesses, with incomes and revenues slashed to nothing, or almost nothing, in a matter of hours: exhibitions cancelled, customers and commissions gone, stores closed.

“Our revenues are down close to 75 per cent since this happened,” says Dutil Denim co-owner Walley Wargolet, whose Gastown windows now feature two murals.

“When I come into the store once or twice a week it’s nice to see a beautiful piece of artwork,” says Mr. Wargolet, who is also a board member of the Gastown Business Improvement Society (also known as the Gastown BIA).

“It can at least put a smile on your face at a time when there isn’t a lot to smile about."

With more than 55 murals all over Gastown, the BIA is cooking up a plan for the summer taking those murals and creating outdoor galleries in the area’s alleys. And there has been interest from the Vancouver Art Gallery as well for doing something with them in the future.

Organizers of the Vancouver Mural Festival, noting Gastown’s grassroots effort, mobilized to send artists to more than 40 other boarded-up locations downtown and beyond for what they’re calling #MakeArtWhileApart. “We knew we had to take action,” says VMF executive director David Vertesi.

While some of the artists from the Gastown effort looked back on the impact of the work they’ve made, VMF artists shared their thoughts on how the pandemic has affected their lives, what they’re doing to stay afloat and what role public art might play in a time of physical distancing.

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Murals dedicated to public health officials Deena Hinshaw, Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Bonnie Henry in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood last month.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Abi Taylor on Dr. Bonnie Henry (Provincial Health Officer for B.C.)

It was pretty fast. Kim was kind of like ‘Can you be here today?’ so I quickly found a picture of [Bonnie Henry] where she looked friendly and smiling and I printed that out and then just kind of like went for it.

I chose those colours because they looked happy I guess. And they’re just a bit different. Kind of like a comic-y style, bright and eye-catching. I’m curious if she thinks her face looks good in yellow and pink and blue.

I’m living at home with my parents now and they’ll often bring me the newspaper [with a photo of the mural in it] and say: ‘Oh, here you are again.’

Breece Austin on Dr. Theresa Tam (Chief Public Health Officer of Canada) and Patty Hajdu (federal Minister of Health)

They’re just such incredible women right now. Those two, they just really they really spoke to me. For Theresa Tam, I was looking for a really good photo of her. One that was bright and just really showed her beauty. The reason I chose that one; it was a powerful photo of her.

I did hear from Patty; she said it was an honour to see her mural on Instagram. That was a really lovely thing to hear. I was a little star struck.

David Austin on Dr. Deena Hinshaw (Chief Medical Officer of Health for Alberta)

My sister Breece woke me up one day and she told me we’re going to draw murals on Kimprints. Because I was on spring break, I’m in Grade 12, I thought we could do some murals for the COVID thing and it would go down in history. I was so nervous. Because I’ve never painted in public, first of all. And I was scared to show off a piece of myself to the public.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Izzie Cheung on Respiratory Therapists

I’m an RT at the Vancouver General Hospital and I had just finished my first set of shifts ever at the hospital; I was just coming off my last night of my first week. I got off my night shift, took a nap, came downtown and I ended up painting three of my new colleagues.

I came up with the idea on my night shift. A friend and I were picking who in the department would want their face painted on a mural. Then it just fell into place.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Jenn Brisson on Share Your Light

It’s interesting, when I got asked to do this, I was like, ‘Shouldn’t I just stay home?’ But I also want to do my part and spread a little bit of joy and a little bit of hope to people.

People still need to go out once in a while and it’s nice to have a canvas that’s available for me that I can share some of my art that way.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Carmen Chan on Where Flowers Bloom, So Does Hope

Yesterday, someone told to me it was really calming for them to see this. I think it reminds people that there is hope and reminds them of the past before all this happened. To see artists still putting in the effort to these murals, knowing that these walls will come down eventually anyway, I think it shows that the artist community wants to spread that joy, hope and positivity.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Fergus To, internal medicine specialist/rheumatologist, and Dr. Jordanna Kapeluto, endocrinologist (with assistance from artist friends Eric Puchmayr and Stephanie Wiriahardja) on Girl Without Virus

Dr. To I’m doing my Master’s right now in quality improvement for health care and I was reading my textbook and I came across that line by Hippocrates, his description of a health-care worker, and that really resonated with me. And my wife, who is a lot more in tune with art than I am, suggested the Banksy image – the girl reaching for the balloon – but she came up with the concept of pushing the virus away.

Dr. Kapeluto For some reason, the girl with the balloon just popped into my head and I thought it would be a really interesting concept if we just changed it to the COVID-19 virus, but we were having it stopped. I think the image is really well-known, so I thought if it was something people would recognize but had a more relevant spin to the times, it would be something people would enjoy.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Sandeep Johal on Hang In There

I truly believe art can save the world. And I think during times like this when there’s a lot of uncertainty and people are feeling very anxious about the future and anxious about what’s going to happen, art has a way of bringing people together and connecting people and uplifting people. There are tons of different innovative ways artists are helping people move through this collectively. I think it just shines a light on how important arts and culture is to a community and that we need to keep supporting it and funding it.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Jeremy Wong on Smiles Are Contagious Too

Graffiti is social distancing at its finest, so not much has changed there for me. Not being able to travel has affected my job, which has been challenging. At the same time, it’s given me a lot of quality time with my kids.

I wanted to take this opportunity to uplift people. I think a lot of people need that right now. Smiling has a domino effect: One smile leads to another. The word ‘contagious’ is causing a lot of fear right now and I wanted to flip the perspective on that. In times like these, we need to remember to think positive.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Will Phillips on Solidarity Project

I think that for us in the city, when you see everything boarded up, it makes you feel like the world is going to end. But instead of that if you see art everywhere, it gives you the perception that this is a different moment and that people are still living.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Aimee Young on One Hundred Years of Solitude

I work in film. We all got laid off about five weeks ago so that entire industry isn’t working right now. It’s been really stressful about money and the uncertainty of the future plus the emotional stress of it all that I’m sure a lot of other people feel.

It’s pretty gloomy right now, the outlook. So many people don’t have work, and that feeling of uncertainty. So I think even just to see little pieces of public art and that people are still carrying on with what we’re doing is really important.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Priscilla Yu on Bloom Inward

For someone like me, it’s really important to have a separate space where I work, especially because I live in such a small space in Vancouver. It’s been hard to control work time and relaxing time. There’s this need to always be productive. It’s been challenging to not have my mind float throughout the whole day. When you’re in a really small space and your scenery doesn’t change, you’re inside your head all day.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Kari Kristensen on Love Travels Far

Normally my work is about conveying a feeling and an emotion about the place that I’m in, but now I’m saying something about the time that we’re in. One of the things that artists always do is talk about the time that we’re in and the struggles. In times of struggle, we rely on artists – they’re a barometer of where humanity is going.

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Shannon Elliott, seen here in Vancouver on April 23, 2020.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Shannon Elliott on Summer Breeze

I’m not working anymore. As a tattoo artist, we were probably one of the first industries to go. But it’s fine: I’ve spent a lot of time at home, working on projects, making art. It’s kind of hard to stay motivated. Creativity is kind of like a muscle and you have to keep using it to stay flexible.

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Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Alison Woodward on Untitled

I feel extremely privileged right now, to have a safe home, a place to live. When it first came around that I wasn’t going to be able to work – before any relief or benefit was announced – I definitely had a moment of freaking out about what that would mean for me and my partner. But because of the relief response that has come around for independent contractors like myself, it’s moved me into a space where weirdly it’s been okay for me.

Everybody who has a main creative workflow always has this dream of taking time to work on personal projects, but not like this. It’s been kind of strange to have all this time to work on personal projects and then trying to find the mental space to do that. It’s been weird, but trying to make the best of it.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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Sandeep Johal's mural station on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver last month.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

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