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Behind the masks: Calgary artist Katie Green challenges citizens to be curious in new public art project

Local artist Katie Green is hoping Calgarians are willing to embrace the unfamiliar.

Green is the Calgary-born creative mind behind the East Village RiverWalk’s newest Calgary public art addition: Bridge. It’s a series of 16 images and one mural on a variety of surfaces along the newly developed pathway adorning the south side of the Bow River in Calgary’s East Village.

The project, spearheaded by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), dots the stretch from the Centre Street Bridge east to 9 Avenue SE. According to the CMLC, the total project cost was $90,000.

The images are large reproductions of photos taken by Calgary photographer Chelsea Call. The photos are of 13 participants who wore paper mache masks they created during a series of workshops to start the project.

The creative process

Green had put painted a number of “surreal,” “fantastical” character portraits 18 months ago during a residency and she brought them into the workshops.

“When I started making these portraits, I noticed a lot of individuals were looking at them and getting really strong emotional responses,” Green said.

She had the participants select one of these portraits and were asked a number of questions about the character: The name, what the character is, how it relates to them.

“Sort of these little these questions that you know, would actually really get to the core of someone’s story,” she said.

From there, participants designed and built the paper mache masks based on those original portraits. Then, they were photographed wearing them in a setting that relates to their personal story.

The Calgary public art masks

Three of the installations are on bridge abutments along the RiverWalk. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Green, who graduated in 2013 with distinction from the University of Calgary’s BFA program said the masks came about from her own person experience in bridging between Calgary’s downtown and the East Village.

When she had been creating another mural in a common space at the Calgary Drop In and Rehab Centre (the DI) roughly 18 months ago she often felt an “invisible wall” walking out of the DI and into East Village – where she admittedly hadn’t been often, aside from “spending $7 on a coffee,” or walking or cycling through it.

Green knew of the vast number of different people from all walks of life but didn’t really have an understanding of the variety of community groups that converged in the area.

“And that feeling was just really unsettling for me. And I felt it, but I didn’t know what to do about it. And then you’re sort of just bearing witness to it,” she said.

Green wanted to find a way to bring together those different paths in a sort of artistic public art confluence along the RiverWalk. She wanted people to have a conduit to share their stories and to connect them to the area.

The masks allowed them to do that in an anonymous way.

“It does that through the tool of using a mask, which is actually kind of a safe space, because you get to remain anonymous in that in a way. And you get to conceal an aspect of yourself behind that mask, yet at the same time, you’re embodying that character, it is actually just an extension of you,” she said.

The 17th public art installation

This current piece of public art is replacing one done by Calgary artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay – and he was startled to see it being done. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Originally, the plan was for 16 installations as a part of the project. It turned into 17 when the CMLC and the DI decided to include the refurbishing of a mural – This is Our City: Helping Hands – along Dermot Baldwin Way, originally done by Calgary artist Mark Vazquez-Mackay.

Green had consulted with members of the DI and others in the community when coming up with a new concept for the location, going back and forth on a number of designs. Once something was agreed upon, Green began work.

This sparked some controversy, as Vazquez-Mackay wasn’t consulted on the new project and found out about it when he biked by and saw his work being painted over.

 “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?” Vazquez-Mackay said at the time.

Green recognized that oversight and she and Vazquez-Mackay were able to sit down and share more about the process, the history and the stories behind the original mural. This history was incorporated into the new mural.

“The important part of this mural, no matter the hurt, and sort of the upset of how it was handled, or how he may have found out, which I don’t agree with,” Green said.

“I was able to really just say sorry, which is all I can really do. And then how can we move forward together? And what are what are the similar strands that we’re working with in terms of why this mural’s happening? Who is it serving, and that was the same for both of us. So it was about the community and about people.”

Takeaways from the Bridge Calgary public art project

Images of the participants in masks cover 16 surfaces along the RiverWalk. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Green hopes this series of works challenge Calgarians. She knows some people will love them. Other won’t. She hoping the masks elicit the same emotional response in passersby that they did with the participants. And, she hopes it leads to questions and conversations.

“I’ve had quite a few people just tell me, ‘Yeah, when I went down to the site, I was just like, yeah, Calgary. This is awesome,” Green said.

“It’s not like they were ‘I like it or don’t like it. This is different. And this is strange. This is challenging. And it’s getting me to ask questions, and I don’t know if I like it or not, but I’m interested in it. And then some people are like, right away, ‘just like this is amazing. I love it. Other people are…Why? Why would anyone put that along the RiverWalk? That’s the nature of public work. That’s just totally out of out of my control.”

Green wants the Calgary public art to stop people, make them think. Then she wants them to ask questions.

She wants people to be curious about the stories behind the masks. Ultimately, ask themselves how these stories relate to their world.

“I just hope that Calgary would show a curiosity, and an openness to change and an openness to something that is unfamiliar.”