Creating an oasis in the Downtown Eastside

It’s artwork in the most unlikely of places. In the alley behind 40 East Hastings near Main Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a large vibrant mural covers three garage doors.

Playful themes of nature, rest and ocean offer passersby a visual respite from the garbage bins and ubiquitous graffiti in one of the most high-traffic alleys in the area.

The mural is the handiwork of UBC graduate Kim Villagante and the residents at the Oasis, an affordable housing building. It has drawn kudos and interest from neighbours and nearby businesses who also want to beautify their section of the alley.

“Every single person who walked or drove by would stop to interact,” says Villagante who, with Oasis tenants and other volunteers, completed the mural over three days in September.

“There was so much positive uplift. Residents and strangers would come by and say, ‘hey that’s awesome’ or ‘it looks great!’ I thought that was really cool,” says Villagante, who recently graduated from UBC with a BA in visual arts and art history.

Sponsored by UBC’s Learning Exchange, the mural project has been successful in building community and connecting students to the community, explains Dionne Pelan, who coordinates the Learning Exchange drop-in and computer programs.

Located on Main Street in Chinatown, the Learning Exchange supports residents’ learning initiatives through free programs. “We also provide UBC students with leadership and community-based learning opportunties,” says Pelan.

“When I heard that the Learning Exchange was looking for a community artist, I jumped on it right away,” says Villagante. “I liked how it was about reclaiming the alley space for the tenants and creating bonds between people who wouldn’t have otherwise connected.”

Villagante facilitated the creative process, brainstorming ideas with Oasis tenants. While waiting for city permits, she held monthly workshops over the summer.

“Tenants would drop by and I’d sketch the mural. People gave input. They wanted themes of an oasis, nature, sun, killer whales and cats, since the Oasis is full of cats.”

Adrienne Macallum has lived at the Oasis for the past 10 years. An artist and digital storyteller, Macallum contributed a sketch for one of the mural panels depicting a woman holding a parasol and looking out to sea.

“Tenants here generally tend to keep to themselves,” says Macallum. “But the mural gave people a chance to get involved.”

Villagante and two artist friends first traced the design onto the garage doors with chalk and black felt markers. Painters then laid down thick layers of colour according to the master sketch.

“It went really quickly once we got started,” says Macallum. “Tenants who wanted to paint did. Others got involved by making the food or hanging out with us.”

Villagante says, “I came into it thinking I’d just be contributing my art skills.  But I’m walking away with the love and stories shared with me by the tenants at the Oasis. I have a renewed respect for the real community that is so evident here in the Downtown Eastside.”

To see a video of the mural project visit: learningexchange.ubc.ca/mural

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 12 | Dec. 5, 2012

UBC graduate Kim Villagante helped neighbours and tenants create a mural over three days. Martin Dee Photograph

UBC graduate Kim Villagante helped neighbours and tenants create a mural over three days. Martin Dee Photograph

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It was about reclaiming the alley space for the tenants and creating bonds between people.

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