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Bringing the city to life

How Concordians at MU are elevating Montreal’s streets, one mural at a time
April 21, 2023
By Daniel Bartlett, BA 08

“Tower of Songs” is a piece developed in 2017 by artists El Mac and Gene Pendon, BFA 94, as a tribute to the late Leonard Cohen. | Photo: Olivier Bousquet

A walk through the streets of Montreal reveals a number of large-scale public artworks that vibrantly transform the city. Hundreds of murals now adorn what were once blind walls across the island, outer surfaces that contain no openings, windows or doors.

From a 21-storey portrait of Leonard Cohen on downtown’s Crescent Street to a tribute to Oliver Jones in the city’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood, these impressive works of art — led by Concordia alumni in collaboration with MU, a Montreal-based non-profit organization — have become an indelible part of the urban landscape.

Since its founding in 2006, MU has created 200 permanent murals in 18 of the city’s boroughs and has designed 400 collective murals in schools. The group’s mission is to enhance the city through murals that are anchored in local communities. And at the heart of MU’s approach is a desire to see and experience art on a daily basis, trigger a social transformation and turn Montreal into an open-air museum.

“MU is a love letter to Montreal — that’s why we exist. We love our city, and we love our artists,” says Elizabeth-Ann Doyle, MU’s co-founder, executive director and artistic director.

The network of artists and art educators who collaborate with MU includes many Concordians. Every summer, the organization recruits interns from the Faculty of Fine Arts and hires students to work as artist assistants, or as educators for youth community projects. MU also hires documentary-film students to capture the artworks in the making.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to be paid, have an amazing job outdoors and learn a set of technical skills that they can’t get in the classroom, as well as gain hands-on experience in community arts,” Doyle adds. “Working with different professionals, they’re getting advice on career and exhibition paths, how to craft a resumé, how to apply for a grant and more.”

Those internships and summer jobs regularly translate into permanent positions or ongoing collaborations for students post-graduation.

Meet some of the innovative Concordia alumni making their mark on the city.

Corinne Lachance, BFA 18
Production manager

A young woman with long brown hair stands outside with greenery behind her. While majoring in sculpture, Corinne Lachance collaborated on the iconic Leonard Cohen mural on Crescent Street. | Photo: Vincent Castonguay

From a young age, Corinne Lachance, BFA 18, was set on pursuing a career in visual arts. The only trouble was that she didn’t know what jobs were available in the cultural and artistic sectors.

“It’s a problem for kids. They just think they have to be a studio artist,” Lachance says. Instead, she forged a career in which she handles much of the behind-the-scenes work that enables MU’s artists to do what they do best — paint murals. As the production manager at MU, Lachance brings artists together to create and democratize art in the public space.

Her journey with the organization began in 2009, when she was a student at CEGEP de Saint-Laurent. Lachance worked as a muralist assistant and gave painting and mosaic workshops to youth and older adults at Habitations Jeanne-Mance, Canada’s oldest postwar public-housing project, located in Montreal’s Ville-Marie borough.

“I realized that art has this possibility to create connections with people,” she recalls.

After studying psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Lachance pursued an undergraduate degree in studio arts at Concordia. While majoring in sculpture, she collaborated on the iconic Leonard Cohen mural on Crescent Street.

“The experience was less creative and more mathematical than I was used to,” Lachance explains. “For example, when we painted Leonard Cohen’s nose, it was a few stories high. We had to be really methodical.”

While her career was already blossoming prior to her time at Concordia, Lachance felt that pursuing education was a necessary step in her development.

“Going to Concordia helped define me as an artist and adult,” she says. “I explored different mediums and techniques, interacted with artists I would not have collaborated with otherwise and had direct contact with professors who are renowned artists.”

Stéphanie Harel, BFA 10, MA 15
Education manager

A young woman with long brown hair stands outside with greenery behind her. “I love sharing and communicating with people, and that led me to art education,” says Stéphanie Harel. | Photo: Léa Castonguay

Much like Lachance, Stéphanie Harel, BFA 10, MA 15, was on a career path that took some unexpected turns before she landed at MU.

After majoring in painting and drawing at Concordia, she enrolled in a master’s program in France, only to discover it wasn’t what she expected. When she returned to Montreal, Harel felt lonely painting in her studio by herself.

“What I love about art is painting bigger-scale and working with others to build projects from start to finish,” she says. “I love sharing and communicating with people, and that led me to art education.”

While taking a graduate summer course with Kathleen Vaughan, professor in the Department of Art Education and Concordia University Research Chair in Art + Education for Sustainable and Just Futures, Harel signed up for a project to paint a mural in a school. The organization behind the initiative was MU.

“We painted the mural with the kids, and I started working for MU a year after I graduated,” she recalls. Now the education manager at MU, Harel also works as an art educator to develop and paint murals with elementary, high-school and adult-education students. The process involves leading a brainstorm to generate ideas, proposing a design and painting the mural with the students.

“Painting is a process where you look at the wall. You’re not looking into the eyes of the person next to you, so it’s more natural to speak,” she says. “The students paint, they listen, but they also share information, which leads to wonderful discussions.”

What Harel appreciates most about her time at Concordia is the different points of view her peers brought to the classroom, many of whom she remains in contact with today.

“Concordia was a big part of my life. I’ll stay connected in one way or another for a long time.”

A community mural that Harel helped facilitate at the Centre d’éducation des adultes Champlain in the city’s Verdun borough.

Alessandra McGovern, BA 13

“It’s important to know that when you create an image — when you create anything — it’s never objective," says Alessandra McGovern. | Photo: Vincent Castonguay

Alessandra McGovern, BA 13 — who goes by Aless MC — has enjoyed drawing and art for as long as she can remember. Yet when the time came to enrol in a university program, she opted for communications and cultural studies at Concordia.

“The program taught me to read texts and understand underlying meanings between them,” McGovern says. “We looked at a lot of journalistic texts to understand how media works and how certain forces shape the ways we consume information.”

Upon graduation, she worked in marketing and communications for a financial-services company. While she enjoyed her time there, the job pushed McGovern to follow another path and apply to UQAM’s graphic design program.

After spending the first summer of her degree painting murals for restaurant-owner friends, she applied to MU’s mentorship program and was brought on as an assistant muralist. McGovern now works as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, as well as an artist for the organization’s education projects during the winter and as a lead artist in the summer months.

In 2021, she painted her favourite mural project on a daycare in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood.

“The mandate was to honour the area’s past as a place where they produced candies and sweets,” McGovern explains. “I decided to approach it in a more abstract way and created images that evoke candies, sweets and fruits. I was really happy with that project.”

McGovern credits her time at Concordia for teaching her to think critically and imbue her art with that rigour.

“I’m able to understand what it means if I put a certain symbol in an image,” she says. “It’s important to know that when you create an image — when you create anything — it’s never objective. It’s always subjective.”

“The mandate was to honour the area’s past as a place where they produced candies and sweets,” says McGovern of her “Les bonbons” mural in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood.

Diane Roe, BFA 17
Artist and Art educator

“Concordia is bringing us into this world together, and it’s working really well.” | Photo: Olivier Bousquet

As an art education student at Concordia, Diane Roe, BFA 17, followed the Leonard Cohen mural’s development closely.

“I needed to know what that was and how to be a part of it — that was always in the back of my mind,” Roe says.

Upon completion of her degree, she worked as an art educator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. After running into a friend who worked at MU, she learned about the organization’s work on the Cohen mural. Roe told her friend she needed to work there.

“A couple of months later, I had an interview to become an art educator at MU and that’s where it started,” she recalls. Roe also works as an artist at the organization. Last year, she completed her first permanent solo mural, one that portrays an abstract landscape of the Bas-Saint-Laurent region.

“I grew up going there every summer. It’s where I developed an understanding of nature,” Roe says.

She also recently worked alongside renowned artist Marc Séguin, BFA 95, on a mural tribute to the late Jean Paul Riopelle. The work is the latest entry in MU’s “Les bâ culturels montré” collection, which highlights the contributions of Montreal’s artistic creators.

“To be able to talk with a very celebrated artist like Marc, to hear his words of wisdom and see how he works was an amazing experience,” she says.

Roe is grateful for all the support she’s received through Concordia, particularly the Art Volt Collection. The donor-supported not-for-profit initiative showcases artworks by recent Faculty of Fine Arts graduates to help them launch their careers.

“In the short amount of time I’ve been a part of the collection, I’ve been able to sell my work,” Roe says. “Concordia is bringing us into this world together, and it’s working really well.”

“Chez nous” (2019) by Cécile Gariépy, BFA 13, on Montreal’s Décarie Boulevard

Cécile Gariépy, BFA 13

“When I paint murals, it’s nice to get a team and work hard on something together,” says Cécile Gariépy. | Photo: Olivier Bousquet

Cécile Gariépy, BFA 13, still isn’t quite sure how she carved out a career as an illustrator and visual artist.

After graduating in film production from Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, she intended to work as a director. When people called with contract offers, however, they were more interested in the illustrations she drew for fun.

Gariépy embraced the change, one that has led to collaborations with MU, Montreal’s Place des Arts, Apple and The New York Times, among others.

“I’ve always been really grateful for whatever happened to me — I was very lucky,” she says. Gariépy caught MU’s attention after she painted the walls in her garage and shared the photos on social media. The organization called soon after to ask if she would pitch a mural idea for the Town of Mount Royal Curling Club. She did, the idea won, and the rest is history.

“Given my background as a filmmaker, I enjoy working with a big team to push my ideas further. I miss that as an illustrator,” Gariépy says. “But when I paint murals, it’s nice to get a team and work hard on something together.”

Among the MU projects Gariépy takes the most pride in is “Chez Nous,” a mural to celebrate the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal’s 50th anniversary in 2019. “It was a very big wall, it was very hot, and it was very high,” she recalls. “I am proud of that one because it was not easy.”

Looking back on her experience at Concordia, Gariépy is thankful for how it continues to influence her work on a daily basis.

“The degree gives you perspective on your own work, and a big dose of humility,” she says. “Concordia helped me in many ways — it’s a great community. I’ve kept in contact with many friends I made there, and it’s amazing to see what they’re up to now.”

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