St. Thomas, Ontario is the little city that could, and continues to, chug along making progress and impressing others with its determination and innovation. The street art in St. Thomas reflects how the citizens have built and transformed their hometown numerous times. Over the course of the last 2 locked-down years, St. Thomas has had an explosion of colour burst throughout its downtown. It’s really a remarkable city, brimming with resourcefulness and creativity that I hope more people will visit to see for themselves.
This post is brought to you in partnership with Railway City Tourism. While I was compensated for this trip, everything you read is my own personal experience and opinion.
Where is St. Thomas, Ontario?
St. Thomas is a 30-minute drive south of London and about 20 minutes north of Port Stanley in southwestern Ontario. It’s the perfect in-between city in many ways. For example, London’s population is approximately 500,000 and Port Stanley’s is around 2,100, with St. Thomas in the middle(ish) at 40,000 residents. Because of its proximity to Lake Erie and its location in the trade corridor with the States, St. Thomas quickly became known as “Canada’s Railway Capital” in the late 1800s. Today it’s a quick jaunt into the big city for concerts and events, and a short drive to the beach. Sounds pretty enticing, doesn’t it?
Street Art in St. Thomas Ontario
There are currently over 30 murals that make up all the street art in St. Thomas. From historic tableaux to contemporary pieces, there’s something to interest everyone. Each design in this outdoor gallery tells a different story about the city in a unique and engaging manner. The most recent collection, the “Track to the Future” set, are a collaboration between Railway City Tourism, Young & Free Press, and generous donors and estates. Most of the “Track to the Future” murals can be found on or just off Talbot Street and span less than a 2km distance. I walked the Talbot Street route and then drove to see the rest of the street art in St. Thomas.
If you’re interested in seeing the process and behind the scenes of these visual stories’ creation, filmmakers Ryan Gransden, Mark C. Edwards, and Matthew Mosley made a documentary called “Track to the Future”.
Brain in Bloom
Location: 13 Curtis Street at the St. Thomas Public Library, parking lot side
Artist: Meaghan Claire Kehoe
This gorgeous mural by Meaghan Claire Kehoe is one of my favourites of the street art in St. Thomas. Between the stunning colours, the sense of calm and community, and the location (the St. Thomas Public Library), it’s a delight to take in. The artist symbolizes what libraries mean to her – connection, inspiration, and community. The flowers represent the growth and passion of young minds, with all their endless possibilities. The pouring of tea with flowers growing from it represents community and growth.
Field of Dreams
Location: 125 Ross Street, Ice Box ice cream shop
Artist: Meaghan Claire Kehoe
Pro Tip: Kehoe’s vibrant and colourful design graces the side of the Ice Box ice cream shop. So why not “treat yoself”, especially if it’s a hot day, and get a sweet treat to take on your mural mission?
Here Kehoe’s focus turns again to the youth in the community, wishing on dandelions for a bright future, hence “Field of Dreams”. She also tied in the location of the ice cream shop into the design, with the cold dessert used as a representation of diversity and fun.
From There to Here
Location: 803 Talbot Street
Artist: Clear Eyes Collective
I am in love with Clear Eyes Collective and their eye-popping murals! In researching for this blog post I checked out their website, and now I want to venture on a scavenger hunt to find all their pieces! These Hamilton-based artists used the St. Thomas-Elgin Immigration Partnership’s 2020 cookbook by the same title as inspiration for their mural. Like art, food is a way to connect across borders, cultures, and language barriers. “From There to Here” pays homage to the sustenance, fun, and variety food brings to our lives. Writing about this is making me hungry and when I think of St. Thomas and food, I’m brought back to my first visit there when I tried the scrumptious food truck, Tikka Tomato. I wonder if they deliver…
Magic of Nature
Location: 633 Talbot Street, Purely Wicked Apothecary
Artist: Melissa Kempf and Bibi Nielsen
What is now the Purely Wicked shop used to be Lemon’s Apothecary, a beloved downtown fixture for many decades. To honour the past and present use of this building, Melissa and Bibi’s large-scale painting is comprised of various plants representing the healing nature of, well, nature!
What started as a business selling family recipes for items at local food markets has transformed into the storefront at Purely Wicked Apothecary. The owner Kim beckons all witches and wizards to peruse the wide selection of handmade skincare and candles, crystals, tarot and oracle cards, horoscope birthday boxes, Harry Potter merch, books, and more.
Make Your Mark
Location: 301 Talbot Street, St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre
Artist: Laura Woermke
To celebrate a half century of art education in Elgin County at the St. Thomas Public Art Centre, Laura Woermke created this beautiful piece of a young girl with a pen-in-hand and the words, “Make your mark. Make it matter.” above her. What a beautiful and powerful message to send to the youth who frequent the centre, as well as passersby!
The non-profit organization houses 1,700 artworks from local and international artists. There are a variety of classes and workshops available for children and adults, covering topics like drawing, watercolours, printing, and more. If you’re more of an art spectator, there are auctions, nostalgia nights, and different exhibits (online and in-person) to attend. They even have online jigsaw puzzles on their website!
Portrait of Youth
Location: 745 Talbot Street, behind the Ignite Youth Centre
Artist: Liam Kelly
Portrait of Youth is another of my favourite pieces because it was painted by a 15-year-old. Fifteen! In an interview with Railway City Tourism, Liam mentioned he’s been drawing for about a decade, but this is his first mural. My students used to make fun of my stick people…and this teen’s creating impressive large-scale art!
Liam participated in a Street Art Workshop at the STEAM Centre taught by Mediah, another artist and muralist you’ll learn about below. The workshop was part of a larger vision to create a thriving community of young artists and to reinvigorate local life through public art. From the inaugural street art workshop, he was selected and paid for his work with a grant of approximately $2,000. Imagine if every city and town were so supportive of young artists! It’s quite inspiring to see the opportunities St. Thomas is providing its next generation. Liam chose to represent the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle that the Black community still faces today – a powerful message from someone so young. My hat goes off to Liam and I seriously can’t wait to see what lies ahead in his artistic career.
Location: 745 Talbot Street, parking lot for the Ignite Youth Centre and STEAM Education Centre
Evond Blake, better known as the artist Mediah, wanted to create something to excite the young people who frequent the centre. It also illustrates how fast paced society is moving with the ever-changing digital landscape and how kids try to keep up with it all. Mediah is an internationally-celebrated multi-disciplinary Canadian artist with nearly 3 decades of work in his portfolio. His inspiration draws from avionics, mechanical engineering, and schematics which shapes his distinct energetic style and makes it easy to pick out when you’re walking or driving around St. Thomas.
The Ignite Teen Centre and STEAM Education Centre is all about fun, inclusivity, and sparking creativity through community, by the community, and for the community. Through a variety of programs for 12 to 18-year-olds, which include game and activity nights, arts and crafts, homework help, drop-in counselling, healthy cooking classes, tech-free Thursdays, and more, the centre aims to provide a supportive, accessible, and positive environment for everyone who walks in the door. They also partner with numerous other Elgin County organizations such as the Ontario College of Trades, the Ontario Coalition of Indigenous Peoples, and Mind Your Mind, to name a few.
Location: 707 Talbot Street,
As I mentioned, Mediah’s sharp edges and brilliant colours will pop out at you, even from St. Thomas’ alleyways, just as “Substrait” does. The mural was inspired by the industrial progress that tiny St. Thomas made as a prominent railway town starting in the 1850s. The artist’s vision was to bridge the gap between the past and future by representing the innovative spirit that built and continues to make the city what it is today.
Location: 632 Talbot Street, alleyway between Talbot Street and the Moore Street parking lot
“Willowsheen” is a massive double-mural covering more than 4,400 square feet. It envelopes pedestrians as they pass between the two buildings that sandwich this walkway off Talbot Street. Drawing from the contrasting warm and cool colours, Mediah wanted to represent the warmth of the late summer sun on one side, and the chill of late winter and early sunsets as the snow melts on the opposite side. He wanted to create a “spiritual portal that showers blessings, stability, and peace on all who enter and walk through”. Believe me when I tell you you’re going to want to walk through this passageway a few times. There’s so much to take in! If you’re bold enough, I may even suggest sitting or standing in the middle and slowly turning around or standing still to take it all in.
In recognition of the city’s history with Jumbo the Elephant, the street art in St. Thomas includes an elephant trail which takes you on a treasure hunt through the city’s downtown core, parks, and even a brewery. You know what they say – gotta catch them all – so what are you waiting for? Hop in the car and have fun on this mini art escapade.
Location: 8 Manitoba Street, Step Above Dance and Music Studios
Artist: Paul Austin
For all the Ontario historians in the crowd, you may recall a travelling circus that made an ill-fated stopover in St. Thomas. While visiting St. Thomas, the PT Barnum & Bailey’s Circus lost a prominent and well-loved member of its troupe – Jumbo the Elephant. On September 15, 1885 he was struck by a cargo train on the Grand Trunk Railway and died. To learn more about the story, here’s a blog I wrote that covers some more of the tragic accident. On a lighter note, this mural depicts the parades that the circus would put on in towns they toured through. I can just imagine the delight the children (and adults!) must have had back then to witness these mammoth creatures walking down their streets!
Location: 605 Talbot Street
Artist: Ann Marie Cheung
The whimsy nature of Ann Marie Cheung’s “Elephant Garden” transports viewers to another place. The Ontario College of Art graduate and world traveller has run a multimedia design business while raising two children – no small feat. She teaches meditative painting using sacred symbols and layering to create a whole being experience. All my senses were activated taking in the colourful curved lines of this healing homage to the elephants, their sense of companionship, and their spirit.
To find this imaginative multi-walled painting, look for the beautiful little passenger railway station, now the Railway City Tourism office. It’s a replica of the original London and Port Stanley station that used to transport passengers and cargo between the coastal Port Stanley and the larger city of London. Fun fact, the L&PS Railway is one of Ontario’s oldest. If you’re curious to learn more about the area’s railway history, check out this blog on CASO Station, Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station.
Location: 75 CASO Crossing
Artist: Laura Woermke
Continuing on your quest to catch all of the elephants, head to the Joe Thornton Community Centre to find “Journey”. Laura Woermke’s vibrant contemporary Jumbo portrait almost reminds me of another local Canadian artist, Munzy, although there are stronger black details in her piece. Laura is the Executive Director of the previously mentioned St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre. Adjacent to the community centre you will also find a skate park and across the street is the CASO Station Boxcar Murals, with another iconic piece situated between them. There’s fantastic art everywhere you look in St. Thomas!
Location: 123 Wellington Street
Artist: Koe Design Studio
Kayla Whitney, also known as Koe Design, is an illustrator, muralist, and artist who currently resides in Hamilton. While she creates artworks for a mix of public, private, and corporate clients, her pride and joy are in community-focused creations that have the power to connect, include, and welcome all viewers. Kayla was touched by the tragedy of Jumbo’s life story, which started just as traumatically as it ended. She decided to paint him in a joyous part of his life, with his mother in Sudan, to celebrate the happier parts of his history.
Location: 2 South Edgeware
Artist: Chris Cherry
This was the hardest elephant mural to find (for me) because all I knew was that it was in the Waterworks Park. Okay, if I’m honest I was also rushing against the waning daylight since I’d taken my time throughout the day. There were just so many neat things to see, I couldn’t help myself!
Anyhow, when you come down the hill and park, head towards the playground and you’ll spot the grey bathroom building tucked off to the side. See how good your sleuthing skills are and search for the second animal in the mural. Let me know if you find it in the comments below. I’d also suggest leaving time for yourself to enjoy the park, which unfortunately I couldn’t. I do always like to say though, that there should always be something to come back to do/see/eat.
Time to Rest
Location: 130 Edward Street, Railway City Brewing Company
If I may, I’d suggest ending your day of mural hopping with this one, especially if you enjoy craft beer and a patio. Like many of the artists who told Jumbo’s story, Sbuone felt sorry for the caged mammal. Sbuone’s vivid portrayal of Jumbo the Elephant depicts the majestic animal’s release from a life in captivity. He added a bell around Jumbo’s neck to grant the elephant dignity, just as sacred elephants wear these bells elsewhere in the world.
I didn’t realize until researching for this blog that Sbuone also painted a Boxcar Mural and must have missed it somehow on my visits. The artist grew up in France, moved to Montréal in 2003, and has travelled around the globe. He draws, digitally paints, creates murals, and now tattoos as well, having drawn inspiration from ancient art forms.
Walk with Elephants
Location: 1 Centre Street at the corner of King Street, Elevated Park
Artist: Kry Art
The Elevated Park is one of my favourite spots in St. Thomas and it just got a whole lot cooler (as if that was possible!) with the addition of Kristyn Watterworth (Kry Art)’s “Walk with Elephants” very funky rock wall painting. I’m betting outdoor canvases aren’t easy to paint on to begin with, but this craggy surface is next level. To really gain an appreciation for this piece, squat down and situate yourself at eye level with the wall, facing it from the side to see just how uneven and textured the surface is. Kudos, Kristyn!
When asked about her inspiration, she told Railway City Tourism that the Jumbo monument had always fascinated her when her family would pass through St. Thomas. She’s happy to help memorialize him in a positive way, despite the adversities he faced.
ELGIN COUNTY HISTORY
While there has been a surge of murals added to the town’s landscape in the past couple of years, street art in St. Thomas has been around for many decades. Many of the older pieces pay tribute to the city’s foundations as a thriving railway town as part of a 1990s project led by Jack Richardson, a St. Thomas businessman. He was a part of the non-profit community organization, On Track, which aimed to educate the local population about the significance of the railways to their past but also their future. As a part of the non-profit organization’s work, they saved many historic railways from demolition that we can still see today. On Track is also one of the partners of the Elevated Park project, which gathered funding to buy the old railway bridge to create the unique park. Back on track though, of the 11 historically-themed murals painted in the 1990s, 6 of them were rail-related, highlighting further why “Railway City” earned its name.
The newest history-themed murals head off track, incorporating the era of diners and neon lights, the region’s deep Indigenous roots, the contribution of their veterans, and those with small town roots who’ve “made it big” in Canada and abroad to tell the story of St. Thomas.
All Are My Relatives
Location: 153 Curtis Street, St. Thomas Public Library
Artist: Nancy Deleary
Elgin County, as with the rest of Turtle Island (also known as Canada), has strong Indigenous roots dating back long before the settlers arrived. Nancy Deleary, the Cultural Coordinator at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and a celebrated Indigenous artist, strives to share those stories wherever and whenever possible. It is no coincidence that her mural is at the St. Thomas Public Library in the outdoor reading garden.
There are many aspects of the painting which request your time and reflection. There’s the fire, corn, and night sky illuminating the storyteller below. Further down are the muskrat, mother bear, and her cub. Each are central figures in First Nations stories that have been passed down for generations. The linguist in me was delighted to learn as well that the Ojibwa word for corn is “Mondamin” – and if you look at a map you will see that Nancy’s design faces Mondamin Street. This is a stunning artwork that warrants viewing and absorbing it from different angles and locations. There is also a wonderful description on the city’s tourism website that goes into more detail on the meaning behind “All Are My Relatives”.
Ann’s Snack Bar
Location: 230 Talbot Street
Artist: Clark McDougall
A simple glance at this reproduction of Clark MacDougall’s “Ann’s Snack Bar” will instantly transport you back in time. At the far west end of Talbot Street, you’ll find this neon scene on the exterior wall of the city’s social services and housing centre. The original piece is an important item in the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre’s permanent collection. The scene, set on the Talbot Street of decades past, depicts a busy rainy Friday night when the neon shines so much brighter.
Clark was born in St. Thomas in 1921 and left high school at 16 to pursue a career as a self-taught artist: bold – just like his artistic style. A lifelong learner, he would borrow library books to learn new techniques and sought mentorship from another local artist named William St. Thomas Smith. At 29 years old he moved to Montréal and at only 36 years of age he suffered a heart attack forcing him to paint in his studio from photos. Known for his unique “black enamel” style, his paintings are now in galleries around the country. Unfortunately he passed away from a brain tumour at the age of 59 in 1980. To see more of his iconic art, visit the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario.
Location: 7 White Street
Artist: Rikk Johnston
In honour of the Elgin Regiment’s 91st Battalion, this mural was erected to pay tribute to the service and lives of those men during the World Wars. It also shows the role the railways played transporting soldiers and cargo throughout those difficult years. The text on the wall provides some information, and directs viewers to the Elgin Military Museum to learn more about the local war effort.
Foundation of Town & Rail
Location: 456 Talbot Street
Artist: Paul Membourquette
In the late 1800s the Canada Southern Railway was an integral part of the city’s growth and development. CASO station was built on Talbot Street to facilitate a faster route between Chicago and New York. Two hundred years later it remains the hub of town and an important part of the city’s historic and cultural fabric, with the station now a museum.
Location: 496 Talbot Street
Artist: Denis Arsenaualt
Located on the garden-facing wall of Locke Insurance Brokers is one of the city’s wholesome historic murals. It illustrates the daily life of farming communities of Elgin County’s early days. Again, you’ll notice that in the background of the picture that the railway is already helping to connect agricultural communities with distant markets.
Location: 9 Princess Avenue
Artist: Andrew Lewis
The first time you see this gigantic painting in person, whether by surprise or while searching out each of the city’s 30+ murals, I guarantee you will say “wow”. In addition to the huge pop of colour, it makes you want to run your hand along the full length of the building, as if you’re standing amongst giant poppies. Andrew Lewis’ “Heroes” is a dedication to Veterans and First Responders, while also representing the strength of a community that bravely rises to meet the challenges thrown its way. It is the perfect backdrop to the Elgin County statue for World War I veterans that is situated across the street.
Fun Fact: the internationally acclaimed London, Ontario-based artist is the creative master behind the fabulously bright and cheerful Canada Post trucks. I wish I had a picture to share, and am almost surprised I haven’t snapped one, seeing how they make me smile each time they drive by. It was a pandemic stroke of genius that led him to pitch the idea to Canada Post, as a thank you to all the front-line workers who help us connect, especially throughout these difficult times.
Location: 591 Talbot Street
Artist: Jennifer Desorcy
Look closely at this older mural by author and artist Jennifer Desorcy (Romnes?) and you’ll quickly pick out the Jumbo monument, City Hall, the Old St. Thomas Church, and the Street Railway – all iconic St. Thomas locations that also happen to be a short walk away. If my research is correct, the same artist who created this also designs Dementia Strategy murals to redirect, reassure, and add some fun to people’s lives.
St. Thomas Street Railway
Location: 8 Mondamin Street
Artist: Nicholas D. Wilkinson
As the artist statement above states, the mural transports us back in time to when the South Western Traction Company brought people from London and Port Stanley through St. Thomas. The Talbot and Hincks Street intersection was the bustling city centre, somewhat like today. If you’d like to learn more about the South Western Traction Company and its electrical railway, the St. Thomas Public Library has a great resource found here.
Location: 930 Talbot Street
Daniel Bombardier, better known in the art world as DENIAL, is a Windsor-based Canadian pop artist whose satiric representations cover everything from politics to capitalism and consumerism to the human condition. His moniker is a cheeky address of the way society often deals with the aforementioned societal afflictions. His now thriving international art career began as a graffiti artist long before it was mainstream and is perhaps another nod to the way things can change when examined and reassessed.
“Strange Adventures” is a celebratory mélange of the tiny town’s citizens who’ve made it in the world, as well as a reminder of the positive aspects of small-town upbringings. From actress Rachel McAdams, to NHLer Joe Thornton, to the little engine that could, Jumbo the Elephant, and a few pop culture references snuck in between, you’ll want to stand and stare a while as you pick each of them out. If you’re ever in Windsor, you may see a similarly designed piece entitled “Strange Detours” which is based off similar ideas and helped inspire the St. Thomas version.
When I’m Big
Location: 675 Talbot Street
Artist: Dan & Peter Sawatzky
The award-winning father-son duo at Imagination Corporation, Dan and Peter, are the artists behind “When I’m Big”. A lot of the pieces written or painted or that discuss the effect of the railways on St. Thomas look at the economic impact. The Sawatzkys considered the societal influence from a more personal level to that of the children who would have seen the railroads being built and witnessed huge trains passing through their town. It’s a refreshing and charming take on the individual impressions I imagine were left on many young people.
Wings St. Thomas
Location: 403 Talbot Street
Artist: Kelsey Montague
If you’re on Instagram and of a certain demographic, it’s likely you’ve seen people pose in front of giant winged murals. Not to be confused with Pellvetica’s #GaltWings, Kelsey Montague has spread her intricate and interactive designs around the globe, though there are only 2 in Canada. You can discover #WhatLiftsYou in either Toronto or St. Thomas!
Kelsey’s interest in interactive public art, both online and in-person, lends itself naturally to mural making. She’s lived, studied, and worked around the world and has grown a successful art brand, selling clothing, wing pins, colouring books, and more, in addition to her commissioned work.
TRAINS – BOXCAR MURALS
The Boxcar Murals at the Elgin County Railway Museum were unveiled in the fall of 2019 during the annual Culture Days event. At the ceremony where the new artwork was revealed, guests were invited to participate in a community chalk art project as well. Each boxcar is painted by a different artist and represents their personal connection to St. Thomas.
Anything is Possible
Location: 225 Wellington Street
Artist: Laura Woermke
Laura’s whimsical imagery of elephants floating on bubbles blown by young girls is full of fun and imagination. Between the ironic backdrop of the rail car and the wavy blue hair of her characters, you can’t help but feel swept up into a children’s storybook where “Anything is Possible”.
Dance with Me
Location: 225 Wellington Street
Artist: Grayden Laing
As with many of the other artists featured here, Grayden Laing is a person of many talents which he shares through teaching private and group classes in painting, sculpture, photography, and animation. His portfolio includes everything from film production, photography, commercial art, and animation to fine art. His artistic sweet spot is combining these media with different ideas for people to interact with, reflect upon, and discuss. His boxcar illustration is the perfect example of his approach, combining a photo shoot he did with local dancers, line drawing techniques, and a collaborative animated OCAD film project he participated in called Rotojam.
Location: 225 Wellington Street
Artist: Jaclyn White
Jaclyn White began her artistic career within and as the art as a model in the fashion industry. At the same time, she worked on the other side of the lens as a stylist. Later she graduated from Western University with a degree in fine arts while putting theory to practice working as a video editor. She paints and draws, photographs and more with people of all ages through her company, Jac’s Studio. Her inspiration for this box car was to emphasize that St. Thomas is comprised of many strengths and many faces that fuse together to make the city the beautiful colourful place it is.
Location: 225 Wellington Street
As you’ve read above, Mediah is no stranger to St. Thomas. His boxcar symbolizes two important local landmarks: two intersecting foundational roads and St. Thomas’ railways. His modernistic approach blends the past and present, coming and going, and progressing forward in strength and confidence using striking bold lines.
Want to Explore More of St. Thomas, Ontario?
While learning about St. Thomas (and gleefully tumbling down rabbit hole after rabbit hole) I learned of other murals in town that I didn’t come across. One example is “Memories of the Marquette Yards” on Elgin Street by Fred Harrison. Another is “The Canada Southern” on New Street by the Sawatzky brothers who painted “When I’m Big”. In fact, it appears that in the 1990s there was a plethora of railway-related murals created in cities and towns across Ontario! I don’t consider myself a train enthusiast at all, but I do love a good road trip mission!
I’ve written about the many surprises St. Thomas has in store for visitors before with a list of fun things to do and the longest train station in small town Ontario. The first time I visited was in 2020 for the 160 Most Unusual Sites in Ontario project I started in the pandemic. I ventured out in search of CASO Station and ended up learning how Jumbo the Elephant, the wealthy Vanderbilt family, and a one-of-a-kind elevated park promenade all connect back to St. Thomas, Ontario. If you’re on Instagram, check out this sneak peek of my adventures.
Sources and Further Reading