It’s been years since the Calgary restaurant Jaro Blue closed its doors, but of all the things I can fondly recall from spending time eating and drinking in its elegant little space on 17th Avenue, the most prominent thing in mind is still the striking near-lifesize photographs of wild horses mounted on the walls.
Just like impeccable service or a wonderfully plated dish of squash-filled ravioli with fried sage and brown butter – cool temperatures do call for a fall visual, after all – art can play an important part in elevating a dining experience. Likewise, stark walls and Ikea artwork can offer a reverse effect.
As we’ve seen the idea of “local” become a baseline in Canada’s independent restaurant community, in recent years, the mentality has expanded into the world of art where restaurateurs now look to local talent to help bring their spaces to life.
In Calgary’s Home and Away, for example, a hanging gallery displays work by Mandy Stobo, who has taken her “bad portraits” aesthetic to depict some of the world’s most famous athletes. Ms. Stobo’s bad portraits have made her one of the city’s most recognizable artists.
The artwork helps to elevate the concept from simple sports bar to something much more memorable.
Household names in Winnipeg’s equally vibrant food and art communities, lifelong friends Andrew Eastman and Chloe Chafe launched their business Synonym Art Consultation in 2013. The curatorial and consulting business connects artists working in all types of mediums with local businesses for commissioned work, gallery-style showings and more.
While working together at a now defunct restaurant on South Osborne years ago, Mr. Eastman and Ms. Chafe began chatting with one another about the lack of interesting artwork to be found inside Winnipeg eateries and bars.
“Our whole business is truly built on the synergy between art and hospitality,” Mr. Eastman explains. “We saw all of these beautiful spaces with blank walls or generic artwork and it was such a shame. You have this captive audience in restaurants where people come in and spend hours in a space, so we started transforming spaces into rotating art galleries.”
Businesses such as The Handsome Daughter, The Tallest Poppy and Deseo Bistro (now closed) began featuring a myriad of local artwork through Synonym. The Tallest Poppy and its owner Talia Syrie took a particularly strong embrace to the work Ms. Chafe and Mr. Eastman were starting to do and worked with them to launch an artist-in-residence program where artists would spend time on-site in Ms. Syrie’s restaurant during regular business hours working on their installations.
“We’ve had wallpaper installations, collage-making events, a custom neon sign made, the list just goes on and on ... it’s really just a transformative space that’s always evolving with the residency program,” Mr. Eastman says.
The custom sign he mentions was created by Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra and can be seen glowing warmly through Poppy’s front window once the sun sets on Sherbrook Street. The artist works with neon as a medium and for this particular installation, she drew from her East Indian family roots to create her piece of a deli sandwich that reads: “Deli Delhi Club."
Mr. Eastman and Ms. Chafe also recently wrapped their fifth annual Wall-to-Wall Mural and Cultural festival, another artist initiative that benefits local businesses with striking imagery on building exteriors all around the city.
Calgary’s Kelsey Fraser’s illustrations are likely recognizable to many, gracing the bottles of The Dandy Brewing Company’s craft creations, but her most impactful work is the bright and cheerful woodcut art installation she was commissioned to create in their brewpub, which opened earlier this year.
Mounted on a large white wall, Ms. Fraser created a collection of illustrated woodcuts of Dandy beer characters. Happy humans and creatures intermingle along the wall, and are back-painted with a bright orange paint that provides a unique halo effect to each piece, which helps to grab your attention.
“I wanted to try to create an inspiring piece of art that shows how I would love people to interact together in a space. No phones in their hands,” says Ms. Fraser, laughing. “Eye contact, lots of smiles ... something that embodies human connection and playfulness. I hope it makes people laugh and I think it brings some fun to the brewery space.”
Ms. Fraser goes on to say that she is continually impressed with the collaborative nature of Dandy Brewing’s owners and how often they engage with the local art community through bottle artwork and installations. Similar to The Tallest Poppy in Winnipeg, the brewpub runs an artist-in-residence program.
One of Edmonton’s newest restaurants, Wilfred’s, stands out from the pack for several reasons – one of them being the concept of diner-meets-cocktail bar – but its most interesting quality is the children’s book-like charm it exudes. Co-owners Nicole and Shaun Brandt contracted local art and design firm Vanguard Works to create custom illustrations for Wilfred, a friendly bear who is the mayor of his hometown filled with happy residents of all shapes and sizes.
Illustrators Keith-yin Sun and Judi Chan have created beyond charming imagery that spans an entire east wall. Wilfred and his town residents – cats, dogs, turtles and others – enjoy a day at the beach on the large illustrated wallpaper.The bear and his friends also grace the menu (“The Wilfred’s Post”) as well as kids’ colouring books and postcards that servers leave with your bill.
“I love that we’ve been able to work together with Keith and Judi to craft a story around the piece. There is a fantastical coastal town, a community, a mayor and hundreds of little details for customers to discover,” explains Mr. Brandt on their collaboration with Vanguard Works. “[The illustrations have] also allowed me endless ways to expand our brand. Right now we’re creating more characters for our new cocktail and dinner menu.”
Letting your food get cold over an Instagram picture is one thing, but becoming mesmerized by a captivating work of art before you dive into your dinner? There is certainly no shame in that.