Bronson Wilson’s supporters say he provided beautiful, thought-provoking street art free-of-charge to anyone passing through the streets and alleys of Red Deer.
But what was considered intriguing art by some people was obviously unwanted graffiti to others.
Most stencilled images that Wilson spray-painted onto public and private property in Red Deer were painted over or wiped out over the last few years.
Now nearly all of his street art is gone, and so, sadly, is the young artist.
Wilson died of cancer at the age of 27 on May 31, leaving friends and family members lobbying to save his few remaining works from being removed by graffiti removal volunteers from the Central Alberta Crime Prevention Centre.
Considering the huge public reaction to preserving the artist’s works (some 866 likes were added to a Facebook page as of Thursday), Sydney Schur, a friend of the late Wilson, said centre staff have been co-operative.
The non-profit centre’s executive-director TerryLee Ropchan pledged to leave his few remaining street artworks out of Thursday’s graffiti abatement campaign. She said this will give supporters time to figure out how to purchase images Wilson created on the covers of public utility boxes and garbage dumpsters — which is the only way to ensure their survival for posterity.
For the two years that Ropchan’s group has been targeting graffiti that crops up on buildings, bridges, etc, she said Wilson’s detailed work was always recognized as something special and not removed.
This week, centre volunteers were even given photos of Wilson’s stencilled images to ensure they weren’t touched because of sensitivity surrounding the artist’s death.
“This has never been about removing art,” said Ropchan.
But the fact is, most of Wilson’s street art has been obliterated. Either private property owners, city public works staffers, or other city residents fed up with graffiti must have viewed it as just another act of vandalism.
All art, of course, is subjective. But this situation begs the question: Where does the boundary lie between street art and graffiti?
Now that guerilla artists such as the U.K.’s famed Banksy are seeing their satirical stencil works sell for thousands of dollars, is it time Red Deer recognized the value of its own street art?
Or is any image, no matter how artistic, fair game for removal if it just pops up on private or public property?
“It’s sad that a lot of people don’t differentiate (street art) from tagging,” said Drew Vanson, who believes Wilson’s work “is definitely art. I think people should leave it alone and not kill it.”
Jesse Gleeson, was a good friend of the late artist, who was also a talented musician and athlete, and sees an obvious difference between somebody scrawling random tags or obscenities on public property and someone like Wilson.
He spent days composing an image, picking colours and creating intricate templates. Gleeson recalled his buddy taking great pains to cut out the fine shapes of his stencils.
Wilson would sometimes add messages to his images, such as “Preserve Arts and Culture” or “The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance” — a quote from Aristotle.
“Bronson didn’t just show up and do some graffiti, his stuff was pre-planned. He picked a spot for his faces and people,” said Schur, who works at Dose Coffee, which commissioned Wilson to decorate a side door of the downtown Red Deer business.
While the young artist did create some of these art-on-demand on canvases or boards, he loved street art best, with its controversial guerilla aspect.
Like Banksy, he purposely did not seek anyone’s permission before showing up at night to paint on something that was not his property.
Some of the last vestiges of Wilson’s street art decorate a garbage dumpster behind The Source Skate and Snowboard shop that Vanson manages in Gasoline Alley. Vanson just arrived for work one morning and noticed the stencilled image of a young woman exhaling her breath on the metal garbage bin outside the shop.
“He just did it one night and I really liked it,” said Vanson, who noticed Wilson later returned to spray-paint other portraits on the same dumpster. Like most of his images, they show humanity in people of different ethnicities, ages and genders.
His mother, Cori Wilson, believes her late son was mindful of not defacing buildings. She said he preferred to decorate ugly things, such utility boxes and garbage receptacles. “He provided art for free, without seeking recognition . . . It blows my mind that this wasn’t seen as a gift,” said Cori, who added “where else can someone give you public art — no strings attached?”
Gleeson believes Wilson made art wherever he felt like it — often in places where people least expected to see it. “His art made people stop and look,” often doing a double-take in alleyways and backstreet crannies.
Perhaps, this was Wilson’s way of pushing the envelope in the manner artists throughout the centuries have made society see things from a different perspective, suggested Gleeson.
Wilson, who studied cultural anthropology and had worked in the oilfield service industry, is mostly remembered as someone who liked being part of the underground street art scene. “He just enjoyed it. He never did it for any other reason,” added Gleeson, who believes Wilson’s art holds universal appeal. “People can appreciate it for different reasons.”
Of course, some people didn’t appreciate it — or at least, they didn’t appreciate where the art was done.
Desirée Marshall, a former classmate of the artist’s at Lindsay Thurber high school, loved Wilson’s work (she commissioned him to paint a large mural in the Slumland Theatre concert venue she runs on Ross Street in 2012), but she also understands the grey area that exists between street art and graffiti.
As a business owner, Marshall said she can’t condone putting any art on private property without the owner’s permission because she knows that many people will perceive it as vandalism.
In her opinion, the acceptability of street art comes down to tastefulness and skill. “You don’t want something that can be perceived as trashy,” said Marshall, who believes Wilson’s images were the opposite of that.
His intricate portraits went well beyond the level of most street art, said Pat Matheson, the City of Red Deer’s public art co-ordinator, who believes Wilson considerably “raised the bar.” For this reason, Matheson hopes his remaining works can be preserved or even donated to the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
“I told (supporters) if they will have to negotiate with the individual property owners,” or businesses such as Telus, which owns the electrical boxes, said Matheson.
But as for the larger conundrum surrounding street art and graffiti, Matheson remains as perplexed as anybody about what the answer is.
Some cities have tried sanctioning spaces where graffiti can legally be spray-painted. But not only does this run contrary to the surprise agenda of street artists, he said some municipalities found vandalism and property defacement spread from these approved areas onto neighbouring properties.
“If you provide a sanctioned area, it can still get out of control. . . so it’s a tough one . . . ”
Meanwhile, Wilson, who sought no fame or recognition during his lifetime, has been memorialized in a mural painted by another local artist behind the John Howard Society building on Ross Street.
And his fan base continues to grow.
One of the late artist’s admirers is Tiffany Blood. Although she never knew Wilson personally, the server at Fratters Speakeasy is protective of an enigmatic image Wilson created on an electrical panel outside the club. It resembles a woman in a burka, who speaks not with her mouth, but her eyes.
“I’ve taken pictures of his art whenever I’ve seen it around the city,” said Blood. “I think it’s beautiful.”