More drab Bell boxes come to life with engaging artwork

Local streets are a bit happier these days as the Bell Box Murals Project continues in central and midtown Toronto, turning those dull boxes into bright, colourful and engaging works of art.

That’s what the artists creating the street art say they were going for.

“St. Clair is a really busy street, it’s all about business, but when people pass here I want them to smile and enjoy themselves and feel happy,” says Jennylynd James, painting a Bell box at St. Clair Avenue West and Raglan Avenue.

James’s piece depicting musicians is called “All That Jazz.” She listens to jazz music while painting, which make her as happy as she wants people viewing her work to feel, she says.

Bell boxes artist at work
MUSIC ON THE STREET: Jennylynd James turns a Bell box into a jazz concert.

A little further west on Atlas Avenue at Graham Park, Linh Thai is doing a different kind piece but with a similar goal.

“I wanted do a celebratory mural with lots of people, she says. “I wanted to represent the population of Toronto who are really diverse, people of all ages and colours.”

She especially wants to show them being happy despite wearing face masks — to make people in the area feel good in this time of pandemic.

She enjoys doing this very public art project in public space, which is very different from her usual creative experience,   because she gets to interact with people watching her work. Young and old people passing by have told her they were happy to see the bright colours and to see themselves in the work.

Twelve years of transforming Bell boxes

The Bell Box project director is himself happy at how the artistic program has taken off over the years.

“Bell Box Murals started in 2009 when I was volunteering at an agency called 6 St. Joseph House, the Seeds of Hope Foundation, around Wellesley and Bay Street and Yonge,” Michael Cavanaugh recalls. “A local community association came and asked if we had some artists, and could we help them?”

After artists painted eight Bell boxes for the association, and getting a great reaction to the work that summer, Cavanaugh went directly to Bell in the fall and asked if they could do more.

“The next year we continued and now we’re in our 12th year,” he says.

Story continues after ad

More than 350 murals have been created in over 40 communities so far. It’s an independent project of Community Matters Toronto, which is based in St. James Town but does work all over Toronto.

Currently six Bell boxes are being painted in the St. Clair West area.

A local community jury is formed for every Bell Box project undertaken. For the current project, they were invited by Toronto-St. Paul’s councillor Josh Matlow, following several requests from residents and property owners, who were included on the jury. A call was put out for submissions and the jury selected artists (with a preference for local people) and designs.

Artist Andrea Manica says she considered the local area before she submitted her design for the Wychwood area.

“I thought about the neighbourhood, how it would fit in with the people who lived around here,” she says.

In the end she came up with a design incorporating a lot of flowers and squirrels, which she thought would especially brighten the winters in the area.

Bell boxes artist at work
BEES AND FLOWERS: Nick Sweetman says he’s trying to spread an appreciation of small things with his Pleasant Boulevard box.

Nick Sweetman is also working on a natural theme, creating local wildflowers and native bees at 16 Pleasant Blvd. near the St. Clair subway station.

“I’m trying to celebrate Toronto’s local biodiversity and draw attention to the importance of pollinators and the ecosystem that exists in our back yards that we really need to pay more attention to,” he says.

It’s part of his overall mission in his work, he says: “I’m trying to transfer my own sense of wonder and the appreciation of some of the smaller things around us.”

It seems to be working, as people have told him his art has helped them appreciate insects and some of the under-appreciated creatures of the world.

The artist who goes just by the name Phil is also promoting nature, with his depiction of a moose on Tyrell Avenue.

“I’d like people to remember we’re not permanent here, but nature always is, so an animal would be very cool here,” he says.

Usually he does more abstract work but he wanted an image that would strike people in the area: “This is more folksy, a little retro, it looks more timeless — to give people memories, closer to something they’ve lived.”

He’s met people from neighbourhood who have come up to him “quite pumped to see something they recognize — a moose.”

Bell boxes artist at work
FOLK ART: The artist known as Phil produces a semi-abstract moose on Tyrell Avenue.

Melika Saeeda, working in front of 707 St. Clair Ave. West, is going for a cow, which she thinks people may find “a little bit funny” on this busy city street.

“I just want people to use their imagination for a minute, to imagine themselves somewhere else, like on a farm, somewhere really quiet, really far from the traffic,” she says.

Everybody going in and out of the seven-story residence at the address has stopped to say how much they love it, she says.