Ross Street alley mural.

Amazing Alley Art

Something vibrant and unexpected is happening in the alleyways of Red Deer’s downtown.

Something vibrant and unexpected is happening in the alleyways of Red Deer’s downtown.

Exotic flowers and forest scenes have sprouted up on brickwork at the back and sides of buildings on Ross Street and Little Gaetz. The downtown is also gaining some star power from portraits of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen being painted on the side of the Fratters Speakeasy live music venue at 5114-48th St.

Project co-ordinator Steve Woolrich is glad to see Red Deer’s Art Alley project “really take off” over the past two summers.

With excellent feedback on the new murals from business owners and members of the public, Woolrich feels “it’s a great opportunity for artists to raise their profiles in the community” and for the city to benefit from an “incredible” local talent pool.

The idea behind the joint effort between City of Red Deer and the Downtown Business Association is to rejuvenate and spotlight tucked-away corners of the downtown through public art.

The colourful murals, created by teams of local artists, promote positive social change by involving some high-risk teens in the art projects. They also help with crime prevention by leaving fewer blank walls to the mercy of taggers and vandals, said Woolrich.

Since street artists respect each other’s creativity, murals are generally not marked up with graffiti.

“Once the art is there, the community takes ownership. There’s a sense of pride, and (vandals) leave it alone,” he added.

There are hopes that even drug users and prostitutes will move on from areas where murals are painted.

“It attracts public attention and illegal acts are usually done where there is no attention,” said Amanda Gould, executive director of the Red Deer Downtown Business Association.

The Art Alley project costs about $10,000 annually and Gould considers it money well spent.

This year’s budget will pay for the expansive Fratters mural, as well as smaller public art projects planned for the back of the downtown Buffalo Hotel at Ross Street and 51st Avenue, and the CanWest Travel Building at 5018 50th St.

Three local artists, Bryan Heimowski, Christine Karron and Brian Usher, are tackling the 30-metre-long celebrity mural at Fratters, as well as a yet-to-be determined Buffalo Hotel scene.

Heimowski, a transplanted Vancouver-area native who owns the Art & Soul tattoo parlor next to Fratters, comes from a “graffiti background,” so he jumped at the chance to do some legal art that beautifies and benefits the community.

“For me this is a great opportunity to give back to the community,” said Heimowski, who’s adding lettering to the Fratters mural.

Besides the internationally known Canadian musicians featured, the public artwork also includes portraits of musical icons and innovators David Bowie, Nina Simone, Nick Cave and Ian Curtis (lead singer of the late-’70s post-punk band Joy Division).

The performers, chosen by artist Brian Usher, are appropriate for a venue that hosts a wide assortment of live music, said Karron, a German-born artist now living in Red Deer.

It’s the largest mural project she’s been involved with, so the biggest challenge has been its sheer size. Fortunately, a couple of eager young assistants, who are at-risk teens, have helped Karron and Usher with priming the vast wall and painting some of the abstract background. Karron was happy to make the connection, saying her young helpers “are very interested in art.”

Whenever she or Usher are working on the painting while standing on a lift platform, passersby have stopped to watch.

“People have told me, ‘Thank you for doing it.’ It’s a good feeling to do something nice for the community,” said Karron, who also illustrates children’s books and calendars.

Fratters owner Chris Clark was pleased to be approached by Art Alley organizers about the mural.

“I think it’s fantastic. It brings an eye to us, as it ties in with what we do, and also brightening people’s mood,” said Clark.

The artists, who have been painting the Fratters mural off and on since the end of June, are certainly beautifying the space, he added. “It’s an alley, but now it’s also an art piece.”

Murals on the Buffalo Hotel, as well as the CanWest Travel building (which will be painted by two other artists), should also be completed before the snow flies. Gould hopes to get budget approval from the city and downtown business association to continue with Art Alley in 2016.

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