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Markham in the midst of public art renaissance
July 3, 2015

Artist James Ruddle has plans for fixing up a 33-feet high CN railway underpass in Markham — and it involves an offensive amount of spray paint.

Over the summer, the high school art teacher will work with students to bring a Group of Seven-inspired mural to the intersection of Henderson Ave., and Proctor Ave., in Thornhill to delight drivers and residents and detract from the drab asphalt that lies beneath.

“My proposal was drawn up to appeal to those who like urban art and those who prefer more traditional artwork,” said Ruddle, who heads the art department at Bill Crother’s Secondary School in Markham.

“This kind of art is not something that you normally see up here,” said Ruddle, who will need about 300 cans of spray paint to complete his piece. He intends to start at the end of July and finish in about two weeks.

Ruddle contacted the city last year to see if there were any opportunities for public art work for the Pan Am Games. Instead, the city offered him a chance to put forward a proposal for the 6,000-sq.-ft. mural.

Little did he know, Markham is in the midst of a public art blitz. For decades the city has been focused on urban growth and development, but in 2012, it passed a public art policy with the deliberate goal of beautifying the city. Ruddle’s mural is one of eight art pieces that will be unveiled this year.

“I believe public art is a sign of maturity for a municipality,” said Moe Husseini-Ara, director of culture for Markham. “You get to a point as a city when you realize that you have grown and then you think, ‘What can we do to make the city a place where people want to live, hang out and connect with?’

The projects are funded through a variety of sources including gas tax, municipal investment and money collected via Section 37 — a bylaw that allows for changes to density or height of building, in exchange for a “community benefit.”

“It is bit of an odd location for this big, gargantuan railroad crossing, as its near a residential community and a lot of houses,” said Husseini-Ara. “So, we hope this will help beautify it and make it more inviting of a space.”

Ruddle said his project took into account the history and the preference of the local community.

“On one side, it will be an urban Toronto, Thornhill, York Region landscape — not realistic, but conceptually. It will be more of an urban landscape,” said Ruddle. “On the other side, it will be my rendition of a Group of Seven-esque sort of painting” for which he will use a mix of spray paint, with an acrylic finish that serves as anti-graffiti coating.

He says he is still looking for local York region students to help him paint — he can be contacted @jamesruddle on Instagram and Twitter.

He begins painting July 20.

Markham’s art around town

Traffic box wraps: If traffic boxes — containing the hardware controlling traffic signals at intersections — are an urban necessity, you might as well make them look pretty. Local artist Forge Collective designed the first few, but they looked so good (and they last for up to 10 years), officials reached out to art students at Unionville High school to do the rest. The artists painted and designed the Pan Am and heritage themed wraps, which were than scanned and printed on vinyl stickers and applied to the traffic boxes. There are already eight up around Markham’s Pan Am Centre, and the plan is to roll out 25 to 30 more across the city. Toronto is planning to do the same.

The other side of the bridge: The Henderson Bridge has received love before. In 2013, the Varley Art Gallery of Ontario commissioned artist-mentor Katharine Harvey, with five artists, to create a mural. The artist created a panorama of natural landscape using 21 panels.

All over creation

Markham residents can expect to see public art pop up all around town this year. Here are a few in the works:

Top Garden: A team of artists will make 12 larger-than-life tops in front of a library/community centre under construction at Midland Rd. and 14th Ave. Residents will be able to sit in some of the tops, touch them and spin others. As a toy found in many cultures, the top was a concept that the artists felt fit well into the diverse community of Markham.
Currently unnamed: The city commissioned nationally acclaimed artist Mary Anne Barkhouse to create a piece that will feature granite, stones and bronze sculptures of dogs and squirrels near the Varley Art Gallery. It is expected to be unveiled in the fall.

Cloud Flower: Artist Douglas Walker is creating a piece inside Cornell Community Centre using glass tile. The lower level represents a flower garden that represents the diversity of the city, and the top piece a cloud that mimics the garden below. The first piece is expected to be installed by the end of the summer.