Friday, May 21, 2010

Can Trackside Gallery be reborn?
(Here's a link to a Barry Barr photo of Trackside art)

Not so long ago, Esquimalt’s Trackside Art Gallery was being feted far and wide as an extraordinary achievement.
A dark and crime-filled little lane transformed into an urban art gallery that was turning around young, troubled lives - well, that was a story that everybody wanted to tell. There were raves all round for Tom Woods and the non-profit Rock Solid Foundation when the outdoor gallery launched in 2001.
But that was then.
Today, painting graffiti on the warehouse walls in the 800-block of Hereward Road is once again prohibited, and volunteers with an unlimited amount of beige spray paint work very, very diligently to keep it that way. The ever-changing art that adorned the walls in years past is long gone, as is the dream of an artsy public space where young graffiti artists and the community could happily co-exist.
All that remains of the bold experiment are the 48 large murals that were painted in the first three years of the project and hung up high on the walls at Trackside, named for the E&N railway that runs alongside it.
The colourful and transient art that once dotted the lower wall has been painted over. The street lights in the area are off now that Rock Solid’s no longer paying the hydro bill. The youth who Woods envisaged a brighter future for have scattered around the region, along with their tagging.
Woods has been so wounded by three years of skirmishes with Esquimalt municipality that Rock Solid has now removed itself from the Trackside project. A new group of supporters under local businessman Jason Guille has taken shape, but they’ll be against a determined group of residents that doesn’t want to see graffiti return to the area.
Woods knew it was time to let go of Trackside the day an angry resident dumped a garbage bag filled with used spray-paint cans on the steps of the Rock Solid office. “Rock Solid had suddenly turned into the one being blamed for the problem,” he says in bewilderment.
Few people feel neutral about graffiti. Some appreciate it as a vehicle for artistic and teenage self- expression. Others see it as an offensive, unwanted and costly blight on the urban landscape. Both Woods and Guille respect the arguments of those who hate the stuff, but they also see much potential in having a spot where young outdoor artists can cut loose.
“Boundary creep” is a big problem for anyone making an argument for a legitimate graffiti space. Give youth a designated place to express themselves with a can of spray paint, and the next thing you know some of them are expressing themselves on all the nearby buildings for six blocks around.
More challenging still is the fact that flouting authority is part of graffiti-art culture. So it’s not like you can just lecture everybody about sticking to the rules and that’s that. Guille was reminded of that while talking to a young artist about the need for a firm graffiti boundary at Trackside. “He told me, ‘You don’t understand - I’m against all private property.’”
Guile came to the Trackside revival project through his Herald Street art and music space, the Sunset Room. He wasn’t familiar with Trackside, but artists exhibiting and selling at Sunset always seemed to be mentioning it.
“It kept coming up, mostly as, ‘I sure miss that place,’” recalls Guille. “So we brought together everyone who was interested to see if we could find a solution.”
Municipal staff didn’t respond to my requests for an interview, but Guille confirms he has met with the head of facilities operations, Mike Reed. What’s clear is that nothing’s going to happen on the lower wall without a management plan establishing responsibility, says Guille. “That’s the question. How is it sustained? Who controls it?”
Guille wants a solution that keeps everybody happy. He tosses out some ideas: A twice-yearly urban arts festival in which artists volunteered to do a general cleanup of the surrounding neighbourhoods in exchange for the right to paint the wall. A SWAT team of young volunteers tasked with cleaning up any graffiti outside the zone.
Or maybe the artists’ group just pays Esquimalt every year to cover the costs of graffiti removal - “like carbon offsetting,” says Guille. He’s got calls in to Mayor Barb Desjardins to talk further.
“The dream from my artistic side is to have a free wall again. From my community side, it’s to have one without much cost,” he says.
“It’s not going to be easy. But we’ve got some good people involved. We’ve got people who understand the difference between vandalism and art.”

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