Painted Love

By Alex Solano

Walking on the streets of Marda Loop along 33 Avenue, a pleasant surprise appears in the form of irises painted like stained glass on an otherwise unremarkable utility box. The art appears again further down the street, but this time the box displays poppies. Earlier this week, another box painted with tulips popped up.

Those who have frequented Marda Loop this month have probably been lucky enough to catch a sight of local artist Kathy Lycka painting these beautiful flowers (inspired by Tiffany’s stained glass pieces) on 14th, 20th and 22nd Streets, as part of the community’s campaign to deter graffiti.

Lycka was approached by the Marda Loop Business Revitalization Zone, a shopping district, about the utility box project following an exhibition she had organized at the community’s Marda Gras Street Festival in August of 2011.

Although Lycka was already familiar with the City of Calgary Road Department’s version of the project, the BMZ offered an opportunity that the city could not.

“The City of Calgary had a priority list, and whatever boxes were getting graffiti’d the most, they were getting those ones painted first . . . the ones in Marda Loop weren’t a priority.”

Lycka was intrigued by the project, started at the beginning of the month, not only because of the concept, but also by the area in which her work would be displayed.

“It’s so modern and trendy, and it’s so well-known in Calgary . . . It felt like a perfect fit for me, so I jumped on the idea.”

As an artist accustomed to working comfortably indoors on flat canvas, painting on utility boxes on the side of the street forced Lycka to take a completely different approach towards the project than she does with her own pieces. Lycka explains that because of the structure and position of the utility boxes, the steps she usually takes to complete a piece had to be “completely opposite” in this particular situation. Even the size of the boxes posed mild inconveniences, especially since Lycka is used to painting pieces no bigger than three by 60 inches.

“It’s such a huge canvas, so I’ve got to stand on a stool and lay down on the ground for part of it. It has been very physical.”

Lycka has to manoeuvre her way around the panels of each box for hours, all the while keeping in mind that the eyes of just about every passerby will pause in interest to watch her progress. Pedestrians and motorists alike have stopped to ask Lycka about the project, occasionally even taking pictures as she worked.

“People would stop their car and walk a block back just to come see what I was doing,” she laughs. “I have a big banner up with my name as well as my website, just so people know who I am. Little kids are like, ‘Kathy, we love your work!’”

It is clear that the public has embraced this project enthusiastically and with a genuine appreciation for its effect on the streets of Marda Loop, whether in person or in more indirect ways.

“Everybody’s been really positive and really supportive and they seem to really love the concept and the artwork . . . even the response on Facebook has been out of control.

“It’s just overwhelming, but in such a good way.”

Lycka’s hopes for what the project will achieve are similar to the City’s: to bring a bit of colour and brightness to the area while keeping it free of graffiti. Lycka did make it clear, however, that her views on graffiti artists are not completely negative.

“I totally respect some graffiti artists because they’re fantastic, they’re very very talented, and if they go and put 20 hours into a piece, then I think they should be allowed to do that. But the fact of the matter is that most of them don’t. [What they do] is not well-designed, it’s not thought out.”

The long hours and challenging work efforts being put into the project by Lycka are benefiting the community and the artist herself. Displaying her artwork so publicly, and on a much larger canvas than her usual pieces, has given Lycka the confidence to continue painting bigger pieces.

“I was intimidated at first,” she admits, “just because of the scope of it, that it’s such a big project. But it has just been so rewarding.”

Lycka hopes others will be able to take just as much from the project when they walk or drive past the painted flowers. More than brightening someone’s day, there’s always a chance that the artwork could influence a future generation of artists, something Lycka can relate to personally.

“I remember when I was little, I used to always look at murals . . . Now [my work is] like the murals that I was admiring when I was a little kid. I’m hoping that little kids can look at my work and be inspired and maybe follow the route of an artist.”

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