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Coventry Hills tries new approach to public art in Calgary

Think of it as the largest paint-by-number in the country, and this weekend, you’re invited to grab a brush and help paint it.

The Northern Hills Community Association is looking to complete the largest mural in Canada along an 850-metre stretch of fence on Coventry Hills Boulevard NE.

The mural idea was fist pitched by local resident Kim Walker, who said she was tired of looking at the long stretch of fence, which was due for a paint job anyway.

The plan is to divide the fence up into 20 sections, and have professional artists oversee each section. Anyone will be able to take part and do the actual painting. Outlines of the images are being prepared, but the colour will all come from volunteers.

Walker said she wanted to create a project that would help young and emerging artists grow their portfolio, but also bring the community together in a shared endeavor.

“We’ve had so many stories in the news on public art projects,” said Walker. “I just saw an opportunity for this project to invite the entire community to be a part of it.”

She’s hoping that shared participation will help build pride in the community.

“Everyone can feel proud of it,” she said. “Kids can drive by the fence and watch for the section they painted.”

While many hands will make the mural work, artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay has designed the mural and will make sure it all comes together.

“I don’t see this as my mural,” he said. “I’m just sort of guiding it. I’m going to do my best to make sure the community is able to make a fantastic mural that they can see themselves in.”

The work will span 20,000 years of history in the area, beginning with the last ice age, and showing the First Nations and later the settlers.

Vazquez-Mackay put a lot of time into consulting with the community before he started his preliminary designs.

Mark Vazquez-Mackay was born and raised in Calgary, and graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design.

“Over three weeks, I pulled together all the feedback that I got from the community,” he said. “It was so expansive, I thought I pretty much have to cover everything, and that’s when I thought about this history of Calgary, but Calgary before it was named such.

Part of that work involved consulting with First Nations to see how they wanted to be represented in the mural.

The artist said he’s looking forward to seeing people of all ages take part, and he said parents with young children can even find a space to help, as long as they keep a close eye on their kids.

“I think it’s really valuable for kids to contribute because they’re going to grow up and see their legacy preserved here,” said Vazquez-Mackay. “It will give them ownership and respect over the wall.”

Laura Hack, director of the Northern Hills Community Association, said volunteers have 18,000 square feet of painting ahead of them.

“The fence line has been primed already,” she said. “We were out scraping it and power washing and putting on the first layer of a priming base coat.”

Although it’s a single length of fence, each section is the responsibility of the homeowner on the other side of the fence. Hack said it took a lot of door-knocking, but in the end every homeowner agreed to take part and sign an eight-year agreement to allow the mural to stay up.

At the end of that time, if the mural has held up, they’ll reevaluate and see if the agreement can be extended.

Hack is confident the mural will hold up for years. She said they’ve gotten some of the best quality paint for the work.

“It’s an artist quality pigment with an exterior quality.”

Aside from the primer underneath, they’ll be putting on a protective coat and anti-graffiti coat to make it easy to clean if it is tagged.

The paint is ready to go, and Hack estimated that there’s about 2,000 litres of it. The budget for the project is about $100,000, with that money coming from grants, donors, corporate sponsors and the community association.

Walker said they’re hoping about 500 people will turn out to help. She already knows that a local Brownie group will be coming, and many neighbors have committed to help.

She said accessibility won’t be an issue. She also knows of some wheelchair users with special needs who will be lending a hand as well.

They are still looking for 10 or more professional artists who can fill the supervisory rolls. She notes that it is something they can add to their portfolio.

Overall, she’s just ready to see her idea come to life in living colour.

“We’re just really excited,” said Walker. “We’re thinking we’re going to do an amazing thing here.”

Click here for information on how to take part in the event.