Infusing Toronto streets with “random beauty”

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Every summer, artists of the Bell Box Murals Projects paint outdoor utility boxes to represent Toronto neighbourhoods

Adorned with nothing but unintelligible labels and the odd graffiti tag, the outdoor utility box rarely impresses its beholder. And this ability to camouflage with its immediate surroundings—to repel rather than attract attention—is perhaps inherent in its design.

But every now and then you encounter a utility box that does make an impression: a bespoke, hand-painted utility box that transcends its function as a public service to become public art.

Such artwork is likely part of the Bell Box Murals Project.

Now in its twelfth year, the Bell Box Murals Project harnesses the artistic potential of these nondescript utility boxes to create vibrant community fixtures that showcase local talent as well as the spirit of area it occupies. The murals project is “an independent, community-engaged art program” operated by Community Matters Toronto in St. James Town, thus far singlehandedly managed by founding director Michael Cavanaugh.[1]

Each summertime project sees local artists decorating eight utility boxes in Toronto neighbourhoods. According to the project overview, selected boxes are usually located at intersections or high-traffic areas, where they are oftentimes vulnerable to “high degrees of graffiti vandalism and postering.”[2]

While the murals project operates primarily in the GTA, it has also extended its paintbrush to other parts of the province, including Whitby, Harrow, and Essex, and even eastward to Gatineau, Q.C.

The birth of the Bell Box Murals Project

Cavanaugh’s involvement with the murals project was notably serendipitous. In 2008, he was volunteering at 6 St. Joseph House, a non-profit organization, when he was asked to spearhead a project to paint outdoor utility boxes.

The local residents’ association had just received a stipend to decorate boxes owned by Bell Canada—the project’s namesake. Now a long-time project partner, Bell Canada finishes the murals with a clear coat and performs regular maintenance.

Although sceptical at first, Cavanaugh took on the mantle of project leader with an open mind and soon realized how meaningful the initiative would be.

Cavanaugh said there was positive community feedback at the very outset of the initiative, recalling the kinship he had built with the community where he painted his inaugural Bell box mural.

“People were coming up to me as I was painting and they were expressing a lot of appreciation,” Cavanaugh told INN24 in a phone interview.

Cavanaugh said he was initially taken aback by the effusive response. He later realised the virtue of the project continues to be “the random beauty being made in the neighbourhood.”

Energized by the success of first Bell Box Murals Project, Cavanaugh approached Bell Canada in fall 2008 to propose an encore for the following summer.

“Fast forward 11 years and we just finished almost 400 [murals] in 50 different communities,” Cavanaugh said.

Natasha Kudashkina’s “Mother Nature and Friends” at Queen’s Park is a recently completed Bell box mural. Kudashkina’s painting features a mountain personified as Mother Nature, whose body provides a verdant habitat for local flora and fauna, including a certain a local icon, Raccoonie.

Cavanaugh’s modus operandi is principally derived from John McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) theory, which builds on existing strong suits in the community to “[mobilize] individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to realise and develop their strengths.”[3] ABCD works in contrast to Deficit-Based approach, which identifies and services what a community is missing.[4]

For Cavanaugh, the ABCD method is a harmonious match to the murals project thanks to its highly personalized nature. The approach fortifies the conceptualization of each project as well as the individuals contributing to it.

“It is very specific because every community is different,” the project director said about the ABCD praxis. “You have to find the unique assets that we have.”

Art as antidote to lockdown melancholy

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, Cavanaugh thought the murals project would take a hiatus this year—but the opposite was the case.

The project’s premise is, as it turns out, very much compatible with the state-sanctioned COVID-19 safety requirements: after all, the process of mural painting entails a single artist painting an isolated structure in solitude and en plein air.

“Out of all the community art projects, this is probably the safest,” Cavanagh said.

He received an influx of applications due to the cancellation of other public art projects that required more manpower, such as large-scale wall murals. In the end, the pandemic-ridden year was just as busy as any other year, Cavanaugh said.

“I’m grateful for that but it also speaks to the unique nature of the project.”

Unencumbered by the pandemic, the Bell Box Murals Project was as prolific as ever this summer. The team of artists managed to complete 42 utility box murals in neighbourhoods including Bloordale Village, St. Clair West, and Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

“All of those locations we’ve done Bell box murals in previous years,” Cavanaugh said. I get a lot of repeat [requests from communities] because they like them so much.”

Certainly, the continuation of the murals project in spite of the lockdown was a significant source of morale uplift for neighbourhoods whose utility boxes were revitalized this summer.

“It always amazes me how much people appreciate it and they always express that.”

Balancing artistic integrity and business acumen

Winner of an Urban Hero award in 2018, Cavanaugh had been a torchbearer in Toronto’s art community for decades, long before he became director of the Bell Box Murals Project. A veteran artist, Cavanaugh has worked as a painter, designer, art director, and professor.

The formative years of the Bell Box Murals Project were nonetheless fraught with relentless trial and error. Without a pre-existing blueprint, Cavanaugh had to develop a business plan and infrastructure for the project on his own. As director, he is the connective tissue for all the moving parts in the project, from planning to execution.

“It’s about having all the pieces of the puzzle covered,” he said, “which is the artist’s relationship with the city, the city staff, city planners, city planner.”

Thankfully, his background as a seasoned artist equipped him for that spadework, Cavanaugh said. “Artists are really good at starting something from scratch and figuring it out.”

Cavanaugh also had to make the Bell Box Murals Project economically sustainable in accordance with the advice from business consultants, a task that he said ran counter to his artistic sensibilities at first.

“The feedback was you have to pay your artists, but you had to pay yourself or you won’t be able to do this very long,” he said.

Cavanaugh began enlisting BIAs, residents’ associations, and city programs to collaborate with the Bell Box Murals Project. When StreetARToronto (StART) launched in 2012, three years after the launch of the Bell Box Murals Project, he realised he had found the perfect companion program.

“[A]n integral part of the City’s Graffiti Management Plan, StART has been successful in reducing graffiti vandalism and replacing it with vibrant, colourful, community-engaged street art,” the StART webpage reads,[5] its manifesto very much aligned with that of the Bell Box Murals Projects.

Cavanaugh had worked with StART since, and found the alliance paramount in solidifying the legitimacy and acceptance of street art for future collaborations.

“Now when I work with municipalities or cities, they all know the street art thing. I don’t have to sell the category anymore.”

The future of the Bell Box Murals Project

In the last decade working of throughout and beyond the city, Cavanaugh witnessed the steady maturation of the street art sector, both within the society it serves and the artists who nutured it, he said.

Cavanaugh is often asked about the murals project’s future—such as potentially co-opting Rogers utility boxes—and each time he expresses the same reluctance towards commercial expansion.

“I’m not really proprietary in that sense,” he said. “I don’t really care how big it is, I want it to be really good. It’s more of an artistic mentality.”

By 2014, Cavanaugh had fine-tuned an operating model and has been deploying it with success ever since. He has confidence in his project framework and while he does not want to oversee its territorial expansion, he does hope to outsource the endeavour to likeminded individuals.

He is currently looking to hire and mentor prospective successors to take the Bell Box Murals Project to other cities and provinces using his methodology. Cavanaugh, now almost 70, is contemplating the legacy of a project he has commanded since its inception.

“I’m just trying to disappear into the twilight and have all these Bell boxes still be painted.”

To watch the Innterview with artist Natasha Kudashkina, click below or click here.

Sources

[1]  “Canada’s 150th Anniversary — Community Initiatives.” Staff Report for Committee of the Whole Meeting, 4 July 2016, Community Services, Recreation & Culture Division, Town of Richmond Hill. p. 110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Asset-Based Community Development.” Nurture Development. https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/#:~:text=Asset%20Based%20Community%20Development%20builds,on%20identifying%20and%20servicing%20needs.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “StreetARToronto.” City of Toronto. https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/enhancing-our-streets-and-public-realm/streetartoronto/

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