VANCOUVER -- The shuttered shops that line downtown Vancouver have become a public art gallery as artists turn plain plywood into colourful murals.

Alison Woodward is one of 40 artists contacted by Vancouver Mural Festival to create a public art piece during the pandemic.

Woodward is a tattoo artist and illustrator and hasn’t been able to return to work because of the crisis.

“I can’t do the major part of my job right now because it’s not safe. So it’s lovely to be able to come and get to do some work that will spark joy for other people,” she said.

She said her piece, which is located at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, was inspired by the great blue herons at Stanley Park.

“They're beautiful birds and I wanted it to be carrying a lantern for sort of a literal hopefulness and light in the situation,” she explained.

About a block away, Jason McCrea is creating a large panorama at the boarded up Foot Locker at the corner of Robson and Hornby streets.

His piece, which he estimates will take roughly 50 hours to complete, has this motto in bright pink font: "We have never been closer."

“I think the whole world is really slowed down, and in a way like we have time to kind of smile at each other on the street, and it just seems like everyone's a little bit closer,” he explained.

The mural festival has been working with the Robson Street Business Association, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and South Granville Business Improvement Association, connecting artists with business owners.

Adrian Sinclair with the VMF said there are two objectives of the project.

“A lot of work has dried up for arts and culture professionals, so the simple thing of just getting really quick cash infusion into the pockets of artists is really important. Number two, the higher level goal is inspiring hope,” he explained.

He said the local BIAs, City of Vancouver and sponsors are funding the project and covering costs of the supplies while also paying each artist an honorariam.

“During this challenging time, it’s important that we do what we can to support, protect and uplift our communities,” said City of Vancouver spokesperson Kai-lani Rutland. “As part of our Mural Support Program, we are pleased to be able to provide paint and supplies to local businesses and artists who are spearheading this valuable and inspiring community of expression of murals on temporary hoarding installed on commercial storefronts as a result of closures related to COVID-19.”

Rutland said 100 applicants have been approved so far and each will receive a $400 voucher for paint and supplies.

The idea of colourful murals is taking off in several neighbourhoods.

Sinclair said while they were planning this mural project, artwork in Gastown had already started popping up.


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“We're really excited to see other people from the community, other artists step up and produce their own murals. And that's really exciting for us because that means that we're part of a big movement,” he said.

One of the first murals in Vancouver paid tribute to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.

Walley Wargolet, owner of Dutil Denimn and board member of the Gastown BIA, said more shops have since contacted artists to create artwork and there are now a total of 28 shops with 40 pieces of art.

“I think probably the biggest difference it’s made is it’s brought some vibrancy back to our neighbourhood,” he said. “Had you been here three weeks ago when the plywood was didn’t have the same energy that our neighbourhood generally has.”

Wargolet added the murals have helped keep crooks away.

“We’ve actually seen a decrease in some of the breaking and entering that we would normally have during this time so we’re hoping that it’s a deterrent for folks; they see beautiful artwork and they’re not going to try and damage.”

He reminded people that while many of the shops are closed, some coffee shops and restaurants are still open.

He also encouraged people to take in the murals while supporting local businesses if they are in the neighbourhood.

“Right now, small businesses need as much support and help as they can get,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sinclair said the festival understands that not everyone would be able to come out to see the murals in person.

“It's this funny moment of like, we created a bunch of public art, stay at home,” he said.

He said the festival is exploring options of preserving the murals so people can see it for themselves in the future.

To see some online, people are asked to use #makeartwhileapart.

The VFM is scheduled to take place July 30 to Aug. 8; how it will look like this year has yet to be announced.