Street-involved Youth Paint It Up! Big Bird Finds a New Neighbourhood Nest

By Lorne Abugov

A new bird has recently landed with a splash of colour in our neighbourhood, and despite the seasonal dip in temperature, this feathered friend isn’t about to migrate south for the winter anytime soon.

Emblazoned on a building wall overlooking the parking lot at 206 Main Street that doubles as the current home of the Ottawa East Farmers Market, the larger-than-life brilliant red Cardinal is the handiwork of 25 young street-involved painters between the ages of 16 to 30. The young artists came together in mid-September to create a new mural for our neighbourhood – one they hope will spark a dialogue around issues of youth homelessness, inequality and injustice.

The bold, new mural that competes for wall space with the bright blue Café Qui Pense design and a McCafé billboard was made possible by funding from Crime Prevention Ottawa’s Paint it Up Program. The innovative program provides funding for outdoor mural art projects that support vandalism prevention, youth empowerment, community safety and the beautification of Ottawa neighbourhoods.

The 25 painters are all members of the Innercity Arts program run by Ottawa Innercity Ministries (OIM), an organization founded in 1988 dedicated to promoting change in the areas of poverty, homelessness, and social justice in Ottawa.

Perched nicely in a new OOE nest, our big redbird is a welcome addition to
the local streetscape. Photo by Lorne Abugov

Moira Davis is the Youth Program Coordinator at OIM. She was delighted that her group members could work in partnership on this painting project with the property owner, the City of Ottawa and Mique Michelle, a local graffiti artist, who worked with the youth to design and execute the mural.

“The youth in the Innercity Arts program really wanted to do something that touched on issues of mental health, homelessness, and inclusion. Somebody brought up the idea of honouring Marsha P. Johnson, a civil rights activist in New York City in the 60s and 70s, who started the first LGBTQ shelter for homeless youth in North America,” states Davis, who explained the mural design for The Mainstreeter at the unveiling ceremony.

“Her shelter was called Star, so that’s why we have a large yellow star in our mural, and inside the star, there’s a quote from Marsha Johnson: “How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race.” For the youth, this is somebody that they could relate to, and her legacy is something they hope to teach the public about,” Davis explained.

Flowers also adorn the mural, another homage to Marsha Johnson, a drag queen who wore oversize flowers in her hair as a signature look, according to Davis.

And how about the brightly plumaged and rather rotund cardinal central to the mural? “People from the community were invited to write in and offer any ideas about the mural,” says Davis. “Somebody had an idea about painting a cardinal because there have been a lot of cardinals reported in this community recently.”

Several of the young painters involved with the program were on hand at the public unveiling ceremony. We spoke to Jen, one of the younger painters on the project. She worked in one of the five groups of five painters over three days to complete the mural just minutes before the scheduled unveiling ceremony began. Jen explained why this mural, and other street painting projects she has worked on, are meaningful to her and to her youthful colleagues.

(L to R) Moira Davis, Jen, and graffiti artist Mique Michelle posed recently in front of their latest street painting.
Photo by Lorne Abugov

“It is a way of expressing ourselves, but also a way of educating myself, and not just myself, but other people too,” Jen advises. “When you have created something so big and so colourful, it’s definitely going to attract the eye, and people will always come up to you and ask what does this mean or what does that mean? And that gives me an opportunity to educate someone else, and maybe they’ll bring that little bit of knowledge and either add more or share it with another person, so it’s kind of like a telephone process.”

Shane is another of the mural painters involved with the OIM program who has had a bumpy road over much of her life of poverty and homelessness. “I was on the streets since I was really young, on and off since I was 13, sometimes staying at friends’ places, and sometimes just out and about,” Shane says. “I was pretty much living a feral existence. I didn’t really have anyone halfway decent to be an adult role model for me.”

She credits OIM’s Davis for gaining her trust and helping to add stability to her life. “Moira used to do outreach for OIM, and she’d come around me sometimes when I was out on the street and offer food. She told me that OIM had art supplies and stuff, but I didn’t trust things at first, so I got a friend to come with me and we went and checked it out. It turned out she was right, and ever since then, I’ve been here,” Shane says.

“I have been able to grow up with a whole bunch of different OIM staff with all their different kinds of life experiences, kind of like substitute parents for the ones I never had.”

Initial reaction from those attending the unveiling of OOE’s very own “Big Bird” was favourable, with one observer commenting that the new mural “brightens up the neighbourhood in a very meaningful and worthwhile way.”

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