By Dylan ReidSpecial to the Star
Sun., Sept. 18, 2022timer4 min. read
On a hot, sunny day at the corner of Kipling Ave. and Westhumber Blvd. in Rexdale, Leyland Adams circles the intersection’s anonymous traffic signal box, gesturing to demonstrate how he plans to transform it into a bright work of art in three dimensions: front, back, and sides.
These boxes are at every set of traffic lights. Most are a dull grey. But the City of Toronto’s Outside the Box program is changing that by paying local artists like Adams to give them life.
Adams has already painted the pastel background with swirls of colour. On the street side, he plans a portrait of former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean. He says he wants the box to “speak to the people who are going to interact with it.” To prepare, he’s spent time scouting the neighbourhood. Its modest suburban houses, mix of nature with the city, and diversity remind him of where he grew up in Scarborough. He recalls how much it meant to him as a young person of colour to see “an important and inspiring Black figure,” like Jean, in a position of authority.
The sidewalk side will feature a Central American Monstera leaf to bring what he calls “a tropical vibe within this Canadian climate.”
“I want to have bright, colourful, joyous colours,” he says, “things that inspire people. It can be so dreary just looking at a grey box.”
The vibrant palette is also a way to make the art stand out for those with low vision, and Adams will incorporate a QR code that enables people who are completely blind to hear him describe the piece. Adams has had an interest in accessibility ever since creating a mural titled “Smashing Barriers” for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, for which he first used a QR code. In 2020, on the side of a building just north of Yonge and St. Clair, he pioneered Toronto’s first tactile mural – a view of the sunset from Toronto Island that is conveyed by texture as well as colour.
Outside the Box is part of Street Art Toronto (StART), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. StART engages artists to paint everything from bike lane barriers to storeys-high walls. Begun in 2012 as part of the City’s anti-graffiti strategy, the initiative has evolved to encompass 10 separate programs. Catherine Campbell, project manager at StART, describes it as an “ecosystem” that provides artists with classes as well as commissions, often in partnership with non-profit organizations like Mural Routes.
This particular program began in 2013 in response to complaints about downtown traffic boxes getting tagged with graffiti. As of this year, more than 600 boxes — almost a quarter of the 2,467 in Toronto — have been painted.
Artists propose designs every spring, and those selected by an advisory board get assigned to a box chosen by the StART team. Painting occurs during assigned weeks over the summer, with the City priming the boxes beforehand and adding an anti-graffiti coating once the work is done.
Campbell is proud of StART’s “career ladder” approach: artists may begin with a small commission, like Outside the Box, and as they gain experience move up to larger jobs like garage doors or murals. Part of the ecosystem is mixing newcomers with experienced artists who can mentor them.
Adams climbed this ladder himself. Like many teens, he first experienced street art through graffiti. A high school art class got him thinking about art as a career and prompted him to earn a diploma in visual and creative arts from Sheridan College.
Getting involved with StART, he says, “helped raise me, give me a platform. I was just some kid who did graffiti, and now I’m a professional mural artist.” He began on bike lane barriers and assisted on murals before becoming a mentor, leading projects and working as an Outside the Box coordinators.
“I’ve probably done the whole ladder,” he says, “but not always in the order that you would think.” After working on huge murals, this is the first year he applied to do a modest Outside the Box piece. He loves how the boxes bring art to where people walk every day. To him, that splash of colour added to an ordinary intersection can make a community feel valued.
For Adams, there’s also nothing like the immediacy of working in a public space. “Anyone who lives in Toronto knows what Toronto life is like – the noises, the smells, the people,” he says. “With public art, you become a part of that, you’re within that ether. I find it adds something to your artwork. You feed off that.”