Ottawa’s Paint it Up! mural program, a collaborative venture between the city and Crime Prevention Ottawa, was one of many artistic and outreach programs affected by the pandemic.
Since its debut in 2010, Paint it Up! has not only helped discourage vandalism, it also provides Ottawa’s youth with a chance to engage with the city’s arts community and opportunities for personal growth. For more than a decade, the program has provided funding for 90 mural projects across Ottawa involving more than 2,700 youths, with support from local artists, communities, agencies and organizations.
In 2019, the mural program received 21 applications—eight of which were approved—and engaged with nearly 600 youth, according to a 2022 report by Ottawa’s transportation committee. While the number of youth engaged is important, Nancy Worsfold, executive director of Crime Prevention Ottawa, says their goal involves much more than that.
“We’re more interested in ensuring that the grants go to agencies working with youth who have barriers, youth who need opportunities for personal growth and for constructive activities in the summer. And we’re looking for meaningful change in young people’s lives,” says Worsfold.
Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 pandemic reared its head back in March 2020, Paint it Up! received its lowest number of applications ever.
“2020 was a very different year,” Worsfold says. “Schools were closed, youth agencies were largely closed, social service agencies were struggling to figure out how to handle the new reality. There were only three applications from agencies that the selection committee believed had the capacity to manage the complex challenge of maintaining public health, while also delivering a mural project.”
Among those three mural projects, Worsfold says one of the most creative was “Flowers of Asia” by The Door Youth Centre, where each of the youths designed a floral painting to make up eight separate panels.
“They were able to be physically separated, yet worked on a [single] art project, which does have a very coherent whole. So, it required some creativity to deliver on an art project while also maintaining the public health and distancing that was required at the beginning of the pandemic.”
House of PainT, a festival whose goal is to promote hip hop culture in Ottawa, is one of many groups that has participated in Paint It Up!, with their most recent mural unveiled last year.
“It’s a really great way to do grassroots community outreach with youth and kids around graffiti and street art,” says Veronica Roy, executive director of House of PainT. “I can’t put a number on the value of putting a can of spray paint into the youths’ hands and having an accomplished artist show them how to use it, to teach them technique, to teach them about the culture and to teach them respect for the culture and the practice.”
Because graffiti is an art form with a stigmatized reputation, Roy explains that the mural program not only helps to mitigate graffiti vandalism, but also provides an opportunity to educate youths about the brighter side of graffiti art.
“Our involvement has really been about teaching youth about hip hop culture and graffiti culture, from graffiti artists, while engaging with local communities and helping them to create a mural that represents their communities and that they’re proud of,” says Roy.
In the case of House of PainT’s 2021 mural, the lead artist was Jimmy Baptiste, a well-known local artist who has frequently worked with House of PainT and is recognized as a beloved member of the community surrounding the festival.
Like many others, House of PainT struggled to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, facing issues that included supply chain issues, limiting the number of youths they could engage with, and respecting social distancing and public health guidelines, which made collaboration difficult. And yet, despite the obstacles, House of PainT still found a way to keep their projects moving forward.
“We adapted. We did the distance workshops with the youth. We did our community consultations on Zoom. And we did our sketching outside,” says Roy.
While House of PainT is not participating in Paint it Up! 2022 (since they are currently focusing on bringing back their annual festival later this year, for the first time since the pandemic began) they hope to participate in 2023.
For more details about Paint it Up! 2022, including project guidelines and dates, check out Crime Prevention Ottawa’s website. The deadline to submit a pre-approved mural location is March 23, while the deadline for completed applications is April 4.