Artists collaborate to design welcome arches on Churchill Square

The gates of the Works aren’t graffiti – though they sing with similar rhythm.

Found at the north and south ends of Churchill Square as part of the Works Art and Design Festival, En Masse’s emerging temporary welcome arches are beautifully tattooed by a pair of Montreal artists, Jason Botkin and Fred Caron, and a handful of locals called up from Edmonton’s in- and outsider art scene.

Huge faces, Q-bert pyramids, animals and political commentary flow with the confident gravity of lava into one another, a process of filling up the white vinyl which took about a week as spectators watched and hashtagged #enmasseproject on Instagram.

“Its boundaries are pretty simple,” founder Botkin explains of the ongoing initiatives, which have popped up at music festivals and even inside corporate offices out east. “It’s collaborative drawing of any number of people above two or three, always in black and white. Beyond that there’s no other rules.”

Now Edmonton is part of that giant, expanding canvas – no turning back, Dad.

In the En Masse projects Botkin encourages participating artists to play well with others, drawing just the body of a dinosaur, for example, leaving the head incomplete for someone else to finish up.

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The process is similar to a well-known surrealist art and late-night party practice known as “exquisite corpse,” a form of creative tag where hidden drawings are collectively assembled in progressive stages. With just two people playing, one artist might fill half a page, the next continuing based on just the edges of the first half they’re allowed to see. The finished products are often surprising and hilarious.

While En Masse’s evolving organisms are exposed for the artists to see as they riff off each other, the lack of exquisite corpse surprise creates something more musical, as images harmonize and snap together like perfect jazz. Monday afternoon as a light rain came down, a half dozen artists worked on the side facing city hall, stepping back to see each other’s monochrome styles.

Though Botkin says what he calls local “graff kids” were leery of showing their faces given our political climate regarding street art, stencils were passed along to ensure representation.

Botkin, who went to school at ACAD in Calgary, was never a graffiti artist himself. But given a gallery space to fill up in Montreal as an early project, he solicited street artists to cover its walls.

“It was a giant experiment and it turned out really well,” he explains. “We approached it with some trepidation, not knowing how these big egos might react – the street art community is notoriously politicized and rich with big ego, so we wondered, what happens when there are no more political boundaries?

“But the En Masse process really dissolved that.”

On the lower right of the north skin, the word “confiscated” appears over and over, aimed directly at a city hall with strict policies which in some cases is behind the times, especially when it comes to differentiating between vandalism and the sort of alleyway art studios that brought Basquiat and Banksy into the mainstream. And we still punish business for being tagged.

When police controversially seized DP’s gallery art a few weeks ago from Paint Spot they pried open a conversation other cities – including Montreal known for its spectacular street art – have already been through. Though some of the zero-tolerance status quo in Edmonton might feel violated by even the suggestion of this, unsolicited art of (importantly) a certain caliber is actually protected and recognized by cities like New York and London.

The recent swirl around the Rollie Miles mural – vandalized, then quickly and unofficially replaced with a fantastic new tribute to the legendary Edmonton Eskimo which is now being institutionally recognized – are baby steps along this path.

“It’s really crazy in Edmonton,” Botkin laughs. “I’m really amazed and shocked. It’s quite amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it. Montreal’s pretty liberal. It’s not a battleground.

“Do we have a problem with graffiti? The city certainly does,” the artist notes, “and we try to address that, because it’s everywhere. I’m not a graffiti artist, but there’s the good and the bad with everything. There’s a lot of bad graffs out there and frankly it boils down to vandalism, a lot of the graff artists I know think so, too. But these graff kids are often just lacking public tools.

“You need to give these kids this concept that art is something extremely powerful as a tool for social, political and economic change, but only when you take responsibility for it, and understand the implications of what the practice is, historically referenced, and just expanding oneself.

“You need to feel safe to venture outside of your own territory. I don’t mean to pick on graff kids, you can find it in tattoo, illustration, the fine arts – anywhere across the board you find people with a myopic view.

“One of the things the En Masse project challenges is that narrow vision. What happens when you are forced to work with someone with a very different approach to style, and how do you learn form them, and what do you learn from them?”

Botkin isn’t just talking about art here: “How do you push each others’ boundaries and find a more nuanced perspective on the whole issue of street art versus high art? Or street art versus the public, who see it all as vandalism?

“How do you break that down?”

En Masse’s answer is obvious: let’s work it out together.