Downtown Kitchener is morphing at lightning speeds. Each time I wander around the neighbourhood another “Oh wow, that’s changed!” reflexively bolts from my mouth. The skies are littered with cranes, a mini Toronto condoville starting to loom. Some historic buildings are being restored, though sadly more are being torn down. The new light rail transportation system, the ION, silently whizzes around its KW loop. It’s silent because COVID emptied the passenger cars. The downtown is unrecognizable in some areas as bigger and “better” squats down. All things said, the gritty artistic core shines through, and in some cases brighter than before thanks to the Downtown Kitchener Art Walk.
Art: Where Necessity Meets Creativity
Surprise! We’re 9 months into a global pandemic. But you already knew that. Lucky for us during these tough times, two community organizations in Kitchener collaborated to sprinkle smiles around town. In perhaps a bit of an ironic sense, we have COVID to thank for inspiring the Downtown Kitchener Art Walk. Everything came together in roughly 3 months, between June and September, which speaks to the level of coordination and teamwork involved. The Downtown Kitchener Business Improvement Association (DTK BIA) and the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) set out to create a safe, fun, and inclusive outdoor community activity while supporting local artists with a paid gig, and the intention to bring traffic back to local businesses.
Local artists were selected by Shirley Madill, CEO of the KWAG, and her team, while Linda Jutzi, Executive Director of the DTK BIA, contacted business owners to inquire about adding a little pizzazz to their walls. Once people and locations were secured, 11 large-frame installations were added around Downtown and the art was printed on vinyl inserts. What’s even neater is that the pieces will be refreshed each year, just like art exhibits at indoor galleries!
A Successful September Launch
Despite the pandemic, the Downtown Kitchener Art Walk launched in September 2020 with a rocking (safe) turnout. In a mere 2 hours, 500 printed self-guided Field Guide booklets flew into people’s hands and more than 2,200 online versions were downloaded. Talk about a hot ticket! Kitchener’s first socially-distanced gallery walk was bumping…in a non-contact kind of way, of course.
I made sure to get out and enjoy the sunshine that day, and it was such a breath of fresh air to see humans outside again. Isn’t it bizarre how something as mundane as seeing people walking outside was a delight? Major hats off to the DTK BIA, KWAG, and the artists who have given everyone something to look forward to and enjoy each time they venture outside. It makes such a difference, especially amidst the growing anxiety around COVID and the multiplying construction sites, to have bursts of colour to catch your eye and give you pause. They’re true smile-makers.
Exploring as Backyard Tourists
When I’m overseas I love going on walking tours. I always keep an eye out for a Sandeman’s Walking Tour in Europe and have been fortunate to find other great local tour companies in different parts of the world. It’s the perfect way to see a city because the slower pace allows you to notice details – and the little details are always the best part of any experience.
This year Waterloo Region welcomed an enthusiastic hyperlocal travel company, STROLL Walking Tours, to its lineup of things to see and do. I was thrilled to join the inaugural walk, Mural Arts and the Outdoor Gallery. As my first introduction to the Downtown’s visual art scene, it was pretty thorough. I came away with a greater appreciation for the advocacy of public art and what it’s taken to bring more of it to the area over the past few decades. In creating this particular tour, Juanita, the owner of Stroll and our guide for the day, had reached out to the artists to be able to provide us with insights that aren’t found online – a definite bonus. To add to the excitement, we happened upon husband and wife duo, Bruno Smoky and Shalak Attack creating two gorgeous new pieces in Halls Lane!
Since then I’ve attended 3 more walks, Brewers, Taverns, Saloons & Hotels: Drinking in Berlin’s History, Pandemic! Kitchener in ‘The Grip’ of the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the Mount Hope Cemetery Tour. The guides create the tours themselves and it’s fantastic to hear all of the interesting facts and stories they’ve dug up. I’ll be doing a review of STROLL in a future post – but in the meantime I highly suggest you check them out for yourself!
A Brief History of the Downtown Kitchener Art Walk
The 11 new pieces introduced this fall were welcomed into good company. The fall launch aimed not only to reveal the new arrivals but to reintroduce older pieces to the community as well. As early as the 1900s public art has been a part of the downtown fabric and, contrary to this year’s reception, it wasn’t always well-received. A newspaper article from August 1914, reports that Kaiser Wilhelm I’s broken bust ended up in the pond at Victoria Park!
Scandals, community bonding, and surprises are at your fingertips with the Downtown Kitchener Art Walk Field Guide, which provides an introduction to the artists and stories behind the sculptures, statues, and murals. And, if local history piques your interest, I’d highly suggest signing up for the Stroll Mural tour (#notsponsored) and checking out the artists’ personal websites (linked below), as well as the KPL and WPL library archives.
A big big thank you goes to the more than 40 talented artists who inspire and beautify our daily lives. Many of these artists have other pieces around Waterloo Region, Canada, and the world. I don’t know about you, but I think it’d be pretty kickass to make a treasure hunt of finding their pieces while travelling internationally when the world opens up!
Check out their links below to learn more about this talented group. Their professional websites are all linked below, except for one I could not find.
How to Enjoy DTK While at Home
Both the DTK BIA and the KWAG were mindful of COVID restrictions, people’s comfort zones, and general safety. Waterloo Region has just entered lockdown for another 28 days post-Christmas. Translation: it’s the perfect time to hunker down at home with take-out or curbside pick-up. After getting some fresh air on your art walk, you’re bound to work up an appetite, or be a wee bit chilly. An easy solution is to bring some of DTK’s goodies home! Some personal favourites are Vietnamese bánh mì from Givral Deli, Japanese ramen from Crafty Ramen, wood-fired pizza from La Cucina, and a cuppa something warm from Show & Tell. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to try something from every food vendor in the area. Next on the list are East African fare at the East African Café, pop-up delights from Underground Flavour Group, and affordable vegetarian treats from Queen Street Commons.
Speaking of staying at home, I’ve compiled extensive lists on Waterloo Region restaurants, bakeries, home care, groceries, entertainment and more for you to get you through the lockdown.
Where to Get Your Free Downtown Kitchener Art Walk Guide
Due to high demand for the print guides (who says print is dead?!), a 2nd edition of the Field Guide with an updated map for easier navigation is now available. To pick up your copy, check out local downtown businesses such as the Walper Hotel or Matter of Taste.