Mathew Borrett’s Queen and Ossington studio is what you would expect for an artist: M.C. Escher-inspired doodles on paper, paintings here and there, a drafting table and, tucked away in the corner, his computer with a 3D rendering of Toronto’s waterfront on the screen.
The 41-year-old Borrett is a matte painter and environment designer. Most of his work has been seen in Spacing magazine.
In particular, an evocative, futuristic depiction of downtown Toronto with Lake Ontario’s water levels up 30 feet and the CN Tower laying in ruins beside a Rogers Centre that’s been converted into a giant greenhouse.
And when it hit the Internet, it did so with wrecking ball strength.
According to Borrett, his illustrations (both day and sunset variations) have garnered 200,000 views on his Flickr page. The image also appeared on some media websites, and trended on Reddit.
“I knew that it would strike some sort of chord because it’s Toronto, the city we all know, but certainly I didn’t expect it to go viral like it did,” he says, while gazing at a print on his drafting table.
The impetus for such an epic illustration came from Spacing publisher Matt Blackett, who gave Borrett free reign to draw what he wanted for the magazine’s 10th-anniversary issue.
It took him three months of chipping away at the 3D illustration on his computer to finally bring it together for the December 2013 issue.
“I kind of picked away at it in my spare time,” he says. “There were two weekends where I went at it.”
Total time taken by Borrett to finish the future of Toronto: 50–60 hours. He admits some elements of the drawing, namely the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, were already complete.
“I’ve always been interested in doing a picture of the CN Tower in ruins,” he says. “I wanted it to be a little ambiguous.”
There’s talk of influences: Mad Max, H.G. Welles’ The Time Machine. And then Borrett, who lives in the Bathurst and Dupont area, flashes a grin under his ginger moustache.
“I’ve always been into science fiction and I’ve always loved ruins of all kinds,” he admits. “It’s an idea I’ve been playing with for years.
“I didn’t want to pin down a particular story behind how it got that way. Sort of leave it up to the viewers’ imagination. I even wanted to give it that touch of the surreal as well.”
That aspect of the surreal has always been with him. He had an active dreamlife as a child, something he almost rues under the dim studio lights.
“I would always dream about different versions of the house I lived in, with all these extra rooms that I would explore,” he says, seeking out a sketchpad to illustrate some of the work he has done.
He flips through the pad, rife with Escher-infused landscapes, and he doesn’t shy away from being compared to the Dutch artist.
“It’s kind of like a surreal Escher. Escher played a lot with allusion, which I don’t do quite as much. I like to think of it as surreal architecture.”
As for what’s next, he continues to do commission work for the magazine, including a depiction of Vimy Circle, which was an original development plan for the intersection at Queen and University, as well as his next big task.
“I’m actually working, right now, on another version of this — a winter version,” he says, holding his hands out to the waterfront illustration that went viral. “I’m not sure when I’ll get to that, [but] this was such a hit, I might as well milk it.”
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