Portraits of a Neighbourhood


They stare at you—seven faces, their expressions ranging from jubilant to amused to vaguely perplexed. They are portraits of Café Olimpico’s employees, pasted above a bookstore at the corner of St. Viateur and Waverly Sts., right across the street from the well-known Mile End café (also known as Open Da Night). They first began to emerge last winter, with a portrait of the baby-faced Phil; he was soon joined by the rest of the Olimpico staff.

The man responsible for them is Francisco Garcia, an artist whose posters have, over the past year, become fixtures in Mile End and the Plateau. “I’ve always liked doing faces,” Garcia said on a chilly November evening, sitting outside on Olimpico’s terrasse. “I guess I just thought it was funny.”

He explained his process for making the portraits. First, he took a photograph of each staff member. Then he reduced the image to two tones in Photoshop, projected it onto canvas, drew an outline and filled it in with shades of grey paint. After transferring the portraits onto recycled posters, he pasted them on the empty plywood space above the bookstore L’Écume des jours, opposite Café Olimpico, over a period of seven months.

The end result is seven striking paintings that draw the eye to an otherwise unremarkable white brick building. “It’s tough, you know. I’ve got to find the right shades of grey and everything. It’s not just paint-by-numbers,” insisted Garcia, smiling self-effacingly as he fidgeted with a cigarette.

The Olimpico portraits are not his only work—similar posters can be found up and down St. Laurent Blvd., from his home in Old Montreal to his old haunts in Mile End. At 5392A St. Laurent, a painting depicting Garcia’s father holding his baby daughter has become the de facto sign for Denis Gagnon’s trendy fashion boutique. Further down St. Laurent, at No. 4103, a mysterious pair of eyes stare out from above a boarded-up storefront. Nearby, a portrait of a woman clutching her head shares a wall with a faded Coke ad at 3830 St. Laurent.

Garcia—who grew up in Montreal, born to a Spanish father and Russian mother—studied film animation at Concordia in the early 1990s. Over the years, he dabbled in poster art, occasionally designing concert posters for punk rock shows. It wasn’t until he came across a mound of poster paper in a recycling bin, however, that he was tempted to dive into the world of street art.

Encouraged by his friend Peter Gibson, alias Roadsworth – whose stencil graffiti has earned him local fame, an arrest and city commissions—Garcia began painting portraits of friends and family members, who were tickled to see themselves represented on the streets of the city.

“I put some stencils of my mom around town and she’s, like, ‘Oh, where are they? I want to go see them!’ ” Garcia said, chuckling.

Last year Garcia branched out, painting his first portrait of a stranger: Marilyn, an enigmatic old man who wanders the streets of Mile End. “He’s just such an icon; he’s always posing, a natural entertainer just looking for attention,” Garcia said. Marilyn’s smiling face can be found along St. Viateur St., in the entrance to the alley between Clark St. and St. Laurent Blvd.

Like the coy, tongue-in-cheek street painting of his friend Roadsworth, Garcia’s posters add whimsy to streets of Mile End. (Unlike Roadsworth, though, Garcia’s posters do not put him on risky legal ground, since he has the tacit permission of many shop owners.) Reflecting a neighbourhood back at itself, they evoke an intangible and ephemeral sense of community. Somehow, seeing his posters makes an everyday walk to the depanneur – or the corner cafe – more romantic.

Garcia’s work is certainly well appreciated, and his Café Olimpico series is most appreciated of all.

“They’re awesome,” enthused Olimpico’s manager, Vito Azzue. “We get about 10 to 20 comments a day. The first few times the guys were pretty shy about it, but now it’s OK Actually, when they’re gone, that’s going to be tough for us.”

So what will happen when they are gone, stripped away by months of rain, snow and wind? Garcia isn’t sure. Now that his masterpiece is complete, he thinks he might take a break from postering. “It’s going to be hard to do something as impressive as this,” he said, shrugging.

But Azzue won’t have any of it: “Frank’s the man. You tell him to keep doing this.”

Originally published in the Gazette on November 30, 2006. Read the original here. Thanks to Francisco Garcia for the photo. To see more of Garcia’s work, check out “The Art of Francisco Garcia” from last month.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 30 2006at 07:11 pm , filed under Art and Design, Canada and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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