Okuda brings fresh global street art to Toronto

Sponsored feature: presented by STEPS Initiative

Only a few short years ago, a number of prominent politicians and business leaders were actively campaigning to rid Toronto of street art like graffiti. The city has turned a corner on the issue and now enthusiastically embraces street art through publicly funded programs like StreetARToronto (StART) and partnerships with the STEPS Initiative

One such collaboration is Equilibrium, a 23-storey mural that’s underway now at the Parkside Student Residence building at Carlton and Jarvis. The artist behind the project is Okuda San Miguel, a renowned painter and sculptor whose work has been featured in public spaces and galleries across the world. (See examples of his mural art below.)

Equilibrium will be Okuda’s tallest mural yet and also his first opportunity to showcase his work in Toronto. He said in a recent statement that the mural will “bring together several of my icons in a sort of family tree in which the universe, the Earth, humans and the natural world are intertwined.”

Randy McLean of StART explains that funding was made available because many of the themes in Okuda’s work – such as diversity, unity and nature – resonate with the City’s current cultural mission.

“His art is not just about being pretty – it’s artwork that starts conversations,” says McLean.

While the STEPS Initiative made the call to bring in Okuda for this project, StART is often involved in facilitating conversations with artists and arts organizations on how street art can make a positive impact in Toronto. 

StART’s Catherine Campbell says a big part of the project’s appeal was the unique visual quality of Okuda’s style. 

“We’re excited to be bringing something new into Toronto that we haven’t seen on our walls before,” she says. “The vibrant colour palette will really resonate in the neighbourhood.”

One major pillar of StART’s funding programs is the potential for mentorship and creative growth for local artists. The Equilibrium mural will represent a major professional opportunity for artists like Stephanie Bellefleur, a contemporary artist and arts administrator with STEPS. She’s going to be up on the swing stage with Okuda and his two assistants for the duration of the project – work that will demand a lot of physical endurance. 

“Almost every single artist I’ve worked with who has been really successful in this capacity is either a personal trainer or does some kind of physical activity outside of their role,” she says.

In addition to the weather exposure and filling a massive canvas, Okuda’s team will also be creating this mural in a very public way. That might seem like an unnerving prospect, but Bellefleur thinks there will be too much keeping her mind occupied to notice.

“When you’re up there in the swing stage, you’re in a whole different world,” she says. “Your mind is focused on your timeline, you’re making sure everybody’s safe and comfortable and happy. You’re in the zone.”

This project would’ve been more difficult to realize a decade ago, but Toronto’s cultural climate has evolved significantly – as highlighted by the variety of StART-funded art projects taking place in underpasses, on traffic signal boxes and in community alleyways.

“STEPS has also really been championing local street art and building capacity of young female street artists such as myself and other women to be in roles that are often seen as more male-dominated,” says Bellefleur. “That’s been really great.”

To celebrate Equilibrium and spread awareness of Okuda’s work, #Hashtag Gallery is launching the artist’s first solo exhibition in Canada on July 7. Gallery director Graeme Luey reached out to arrange things once Okuda was selected for the mural. 

“I’ve been following him on Instagram and through magazines,” Luey says. “His work is super colourful, geometric and figurative.”

Titled Horses & Muses, the exhibition will feature 17 pieces of artwork – three sculptures and 14 wall-hanging pieces. It’s the kind of art Luey says he seeks out in the city but doesn’t see often enough. 

“Our attitudes to street art are getting better,” he says. “STEPS and StreetARToronto are both leading the way and doing a good job in involving local street artists, ones who may have been doing just the graffiti thing before but now realize that they can find a creative outlet and get paid. Supporting those artists is huge.”

Find out more about the Equilibrium project here. 

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