Biking through the downtown, Calgary artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay was shocked to wheel up on an East Village mural he’d worked on nearly six years ago being painted over.
It’s a piece of artwork on the abutment under the 5 Avenue flyover on Dermot Baldwin Way. The public art project was called “This is Our City: Helping Hands” and depicted people from different walks of life who populated the area around the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre (the DI).
Vazquez-Mackay said he was asked to help steer to project and worked with the DI population to find artists and tell stories about the clients. He said they worked with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), Calgary Roads and the Calgary public art program to come up with something that worked for everyone.
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“The residents down there, they wanted to sort of show the hardship. But we created something that was more hopeful. And that showed how complex, you know, a life can be and the obstacles that potentially could have,” said Vazquez-Mackay.
They also wanted to draw in the other communities in the area, so they sought out input from the local seniors groups in East Village and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS).
“We recorded more than 100 people as having participated in it, including police officers working alongside residents of the drop-in centre, working along corporate people from the CMLC,” Vazquez-Mackay said.
Original piece brought the community together
Vazquez-Mackay was the lead artist for the community fence painting project spearheaded by the Northern Hills Community Association last year. He said he’s led numerous community mural and public art projects across Calgary. They all had one goal: Bringing community together.
“I think this piece transcended time, spoke more to the people in the community and who occupied that space, and – validating people’s existence,” he said.
Two of the people who worked on the East Village mural were residents at the DI, including one who was murdered steps away from the mural. Ryan Delve was described as a homeless artist and he was killed four years ago this June.
Vazquez-Mackay, a long-time artist in the city, understands that some artwork is created to be painted over or removed in time, but he wasn’t under the impression this piece would be replaced.
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Clare LePan, VP of communication for the CMLC said they’d since spoken with Vazquez-Mackay and they understand his perspective on the issue. She said the piece is a part of the Riverwalk art installations in the area and every few years they replace the art just to keep the area fresh.
This particular piece had been up for some time and the walls had started to deteriorate and there was an increase in vandals tagging the location with graffiti.
“And so it really was an intention to look at if there was an opportunity to involve another local artist in doing a next iteration of the murals,” LePan said.
LePan said the current artist, Calgarian Katie Green, also worked with the area residents and clients of the DI to come up with a new vision for the location. She acknowledged the history of the area, including Delve’s death but deferred to the DI for further comment.
LePan also admitted that the CMLC did not include Vazquez-Mackay in the consultation process for the new mural either.
East Village mural: Drop-In Centre response
In a prepared statement, the DI said “without a doubt, “Helping Hands” will be remembered as instilling hope and connectedness to those who occupied this space in East Village.”
“The mural inspired people for five years before it was required to be repainted due to disrepair and explicit graffiti.”
They said it was an overall effort to ensure the upkeep of the space in the area.
“We are excited to see the evolution of public art in the East Village and we’d like to acknowledge that the small chunk of the wall underneath the overpass would never have been considered a public art canvas without the original “This is Our City” artist group,” the statement read.
They didn’t make anyone available for questions, and didn’t address the significance of one of their residents being killed in the area.
Missed opportunity to consult previous artists
Vazquez-Mackay understand the need to revamp the East Village mural. He believed there was an opportunity for someone, including the artist, to give him a courtesy call to talk about the history of the previous mural.
“’Hey, you know, it, it seems like your mural has served its time and I’ve been hired to paint over it’, but not even a courtesy phone call to say this is happening,” Vazquez-Mackay said.
“As an artist, I would never paint over someone’s work. I mean, that’s sacrilegious. You don’t do that to another person. But it goes a lot bigger than that, because it’s an entire community that’s been eradicated, and their identity sort of washed clean.
“I understand that the CMLC, they have their mandate of beautifying the neighborhood to sell more condos and that sort of thing. But they certainly could have reached out to a few of us and said, ‘Well, you know, I’m redoing this mural, what should I know about?”
LePan said the current artist shouldn’t be implicated and that it’s an oversight on the part of the DI and the CMLC.
“I don’t think in any instance, nor was there in ours, but I don’t think in any instance was the intention to surprise the artists with this change or not include them for any ill intended reason,” she said.
There are 16 Riverwalk installations and there’s a $90,000 budget, and includes all the bridge abutments in the area.