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marcus gee

Visitors to Toronto's downtown waterfront this weekend might come across a pair of giant hands covered in shiny gold wrap standing sentry at either end of a bridge. Elsewhere they could see brightly coloured sails pivoting in the wind. At still another spot, they might find a collection of shapes painted with black-and-white stripes like a camouflaged warship.

It's all part of a clever plan to use public art to lure people out of their winter cocoons and down to the water.

Torontonians, like urban Canadians in general, tend to shut themselves away in the cold weather. When they gather the courage to venture outdoors, they are more likely to visit a ski hill or a skating rink than gaze at a work of art.

Most people don't even think about going down to the waterfront. Busy in the warm months, when visitors come down to recline on the sand at Sugar Beach, ride their bikes along Queens Quay or just watch the boats in the harbour, it can look desolate at this time of year.

The people behind this year's Ice Breakers festival hope to change that, and alter the way city dwellers experience winter in the process. Starting on Saturday and running till Feb. 26, the event features five art installations spread along the waterfront. Visitors can learn about the art and the artists from an app on their phones, TO Ice Breakers.

The Waterfront Business Improvement Area is organizing the event with the help of Winter Stations, a group that holds an annual art competition on Toronto's eastern beaches. Winter Stations in turn took inspiration from Winnipeg's Warming Huts project, which challenges designers to invent pieces to be placed along the city's river skating trail.

That competition started in 2009. Winter Stations started in 2015. Ice Breakers is new this year, and the BIA is hoping other groups jump on the bandwagon. It's an inspired idea. Why not have winter art in the Bentway, the new urban park that is designed to enliven the forbidding spaces under the elevated Gardiner Expressway? Why not in public spaces, such as Nathan Phillips Square or Yonge-Dundas Square? Before long we could see cold-weather art all over the place, drawing people out of their cars and basements and mall caverns into the crisp air and clear light of winter.

Art festivals, including Luminato in the spring and Nuit Blanche in the fall, have shown how popular happenings like this can be, attracting throngs of visitors and bringing buzzing life to city streets. The success of Winter Stations shows it can work in winter, too.

Persuading people to troop down to a frozen beach might seem tough. In fact, they have shown up in healthy numbers on even the coldest weekends, braving the weather to see a series of art pieces erected along the shore. Last year, one of the big attractions was called In the Belly of a Bear. Visitors lined up to climb inside the padded interior of a hollow globe.

This year's Winter Stations, which goes from Feb. 20 to March 27, features eight pieces picked from 340 submissions from 53 countries. In one piece, modelled on a Japanese hot spring, visitors can take off their shoes and warm their feet in hot water. Another, The Beacon, is a big standing cone with a beam of light coming out of the top.

Like all good exhibits, the event makes viewers reflect on the objects before them, but it also makes them think about the surrounding environment: the city in winter. The beach is a place where people usually go to seek warmth and sunshine. In the winter, it is different – grey, austere and beautiful for all that.

Putting art on a cold beach is "a counterintuitive, up-yours-winter kind of idea," says Roland Rom Colthoff of RAW Design, an architect and west-end neighbour of mine who helped found the event.

That's the right attitude to take about winter in Toronto. This, after all, is a Canadian city. Winter comes every year. It stays for a good while. Hiding from it won't do. Wiser to bundle up and welcome it. What better way than through the power of art.

The City of Toronto is among municipalities choosing to combat winter weather with beet juice. The liquid is effective at lower temperatures than a salt brine solution and is also less corrosive.

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