Canada’s leading voice in mural art

Scarborough has a powerhouse working to promote the arts, and its name is Karin Eaton. After eleven years as executive director of Scarborough Arts Council, Eaton, whose initial art interests lay in writing and theatre, found her passions leading her to become perhaps the foremost Canadian spokesperson for mural art. She now serves as mural curator and executive director of Mural Routes, an internationally respected institution she helped found.

It began at Scarborough Arts Council in 1990, when Eaton heard about a public mural project in Chemainus, BC, and decided to celebrate Scarborough with 12 murals along Kingston Road, called Heritage Trail. "We developed the idea of putting murals in the area as a way to attract people to the arts, in your face, where you couldn't avoid it," she says. Today, her goals have evolved. "Number one, we are trying to elevate the credibility and status of mural art and artists, and to do that, of course, we feel that it's important to have education, professional development, networking opportunities, and more."

To that end, Mural Routes administers free public art workshops for youth and seniors. Their site (muralroutes.com) documents murals in dozens of Canadian communities, as well as in other countries. There's also a national mural symposium, now in its 12th year. This year's edition, in Midland in October, offers mural tours, a lettering workshop with a Vancouver sign specialist, an introduction to non-traditional materials, and a session on understanding graffiti art culture.

Eaton believes that not all murals are created equal; nor should they be. "You have your very expensive fine art murals — where I believe we're very much behind in Canada," she says. "It's interesting that in the field of public art, murals are very seldom commissioned."

This was not the case in the last century, which saw mural art created for numerous public interiors: by George Reid in Old City Hall, the Dufferin/St. Clair Public Library, and Jarvis Collegiate; by Charles Comfort in the Design Exchange; by Natacha Carlu in the Carlu; and by members of the Group of Seven in St. Anne's Anglican Church. One of the few recent examples — though a noble one — is Frank Stella's embellishment on the interior and exterior of the Princess of Wales Theatre.

In other countries, Eaton points out, "public buildings use murals as the very highest form of art" — from Mexican painter Diego Rivera's powerful images to John Pugh's trompe-l'oeil work in California. Here, "many murals are done with a kind of community and social service mandate, and sometimes the social services have co-opted the arts," says Eaton.

In fact, Mural Routes powerfully champions these types of projects too. "To help people grow socially and in confidence, it's great. It really works," Eaton says. Take for example Project: Urban Canvas (aito.ca/urbancanvas), a collaboration of Mural Routes and Amnesty International's Art in Action team to produce 30 murals in the GTA to honour the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each painting, conceived and executed by community artists with a professional mentor, communicates one of the 30 principles that make up the declaration.

"You see young people emerge from this kind of project and just blossom," Eaton says. "But the quality of the painting and technique and design is very mixed. Some of it is extremely good — and how do you define 'good' in art, you know? — and some of it gives murals the 'this-is-not-public-art' reputation. Our whole goal is that murals should be as good as they can be, in the context."

What kind of a mural would Eaton wish for Toronto, given unlimited resources? "The mural they all talk about is the Flatiron Building," she says, "but it's more of an architectural enhancement. There are a lot of good community murals, but very few large public art murals, commissioned at a seriously decent salary."

Eaton says she imagines a mural on the exterior of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts: "That building would be totally transformed by an extraordinary piece of art that would really pull the eye into thinking there might be something splendid waiting inside." She'd also like to "fill in the blanks" in the network of neighbourhood murals; she has her eye on the Upper Beaches at the moment.

This summer, Mural Routes is running youth mural projects, developing artist resources and administering two mosaic tile projects, but Eaton sees more that could be done. "Toronto should think about trying to have some coordination of all the murals. I don't mean that they should be controlled, but they should be connected," she says. "I work with staff at the City, and we would like to see them documented; that would help us maintain them."

She points to the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program as an example Toronto could look to: "I believe that if we looked at the model they have there, we could just fly."