Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prairie Artsters: QuickDRAW*

Drawing on history: Midnight chalk drawing opens up a new chapter in downtown's social spaces

The Hotel Cecil sat boarded up, abandoned, squatted and forgotten for years on the corner of Jasper and 104th Street before it was torn down 101 years after it first opened. Once a prestigious hotelier on the then-western edge of downtown Edmonton, the Cecil was designed by architect Roland Lines (Alex Taylor School, Union Bank Inn) during a decade of immense urban development that included the inauguration of Edmonton as the provincial capital. Left off the official list for Heritage Buildings, the functioning hotel and bar eventually degraded into a seedy dilapidated dive before permanently closing in 2003 and being demolished in 2007.

As a prime location on the city's main drag, the corner of Jasper and 104 continued to ride the whitewashing wave of another boom of urban development. A glass tower with a street-level Sobey's took shape on the site with a design nod to the heritage district, but no physical trace of the Cecil remained. A transient town with a mentality of transient architecture, memories of public space blur, but the site of Jasper and 104 remains a meeting place of expectations.

Signifying the status of a somewhat urban density, the demolition and reconstruction of the new building was accompanied by the first "Make It Not Suck"—a DIY initiative led by a group of Edmontonians that saw many of our construction site scaffoldings wheat-pasted with pre-made visual works and text. As an attempt to mark the city with something other than construction-in-progress, the MINS group—along with and often in opposition to—the architects and developers were all staking a claim to the city they each called their own. A city expresses itself, but its expressions are regulated, or inspired, by a few.

This past weekend, gathering just north of Jasper on 104 at midnight, a group of friends and strangers arrived en masse with buckets of chalk and no greater plan than to draw on their city streets. QuickDRAW was the first night of Latitude 53's now annual event of drawing, and the Friday night event was proposed by local artist Sarah Patterson. The idea was to draw on the site of the next morning's City Market, connecting the act of drawing beyond just the gallery area. It was also a fine excuse to take advantage of our summer nights in an area that has been revitalized on the surface, but had yet to generate any real sense of self-sustenance.

"It's just to engage spontaneously with art and make fun in a non-destructible way," says Patterson, a tried-and-true downtown resident who regularly sees the action going on in and around the core.

With cars careening past that either apologized or honked, various individuals from a diverse background picked up a piece of chalk and drew whatever came to mind. Some came prepared with notebooks, others engaged with the street fixtures of stop signs and park benches, and others just freestyled large creatures real and imagined. Curious onlookers and midnight dog walkers looked on as if it was a spectacle, and the market shoppers the next morning smiled at the drawings that had been made for them.

Although QuickDRAW holds the same motivation of graffiti, which has been deemed illegal and unsafe in our city, nobody, not even the passing police cruiser, showed any signs of distress at this gesture to decorate public property for free. Perhaps chalk's temporary nature makes it more digestible, but when entire buildings can be torn down, pressure to remove spray paint seems more like a diversion.

As an event, QuickDRAW was neither here nor there, but as a concept, it marks an entry point for anyone to express themselves, as this city belongs to all of us. As Patterson continues, "It's accessible to anyone. Children do this all the time."

*First published in Vue Weekly

- A.F. Edmonton

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