News / Toronto

Telephone booth public art ignites a ‘fiery’ debate

It was meant to ignite conversation.

Instead, art adorning a telephone booth in the Junction literally ignited when a vandal set it on fire.

The booth, at Dundas St. W. and Pacific St., was part of Tel-Talk, a series of art installations decorating phone booths across Toronto. As the series draws to a close this weekend, artists are taking stock of a number of missing and damaged items.

“In a way, it’s to be expected with public art,” said Paola Poletto, a curator of the series. “You want to put pieces out there that are provocative enough for people to engage with.”

Life-size Superman and Clark Kent paintings, stolen within a day. White sheets cloaking the eerie “Transformation Booth,” marred with black ink. Handmade flowers, snatched and replaced with two pennies.

None of these incidents came as a shock, Poletto said. But the booth set aflame in the Junction was a special case. It had been created by women at the Evangeline women’s shelter, in collaboration with Red Wagon artists’ collective.

Over several weeks, women knit, crocheted and stitched together the elaborate “booth cozy” out of colourful thrift store materials. They attached cards with their favourite quotes. “We had to know to survive,” one reads.

They called it “The Art of Conversation.” At first the community response was positive — until July 1, when someone torched the highly flammable installation. All that remained in the morning were ashes and a few woolen strings.

Marlene Stickings, a member of the women’s group who handcrafted a dream-catcher for the booth, said she was heartbroken by the fire.

“After the women put all this work, put their heart and thoughts into it, somebody just took it away,” she said. “It’s disrespectful.”

The women’s group remains undeterred, however, and plans to create more public art. They are currently taking photographs of their daily lives — as many struggle with poverty, homelessness and marginalization — that they hope to display in public spaces.

As for Tel-Talk, the two remaining phone booth installations will be removed Saturday. Dyan Marie’s “Lansdowne Lightbox” installation at Dupont St. and Lansdowne Ave., and Stuart Keeler’s “Flagpole” at Jarvis and Wellesley Sts. are set to be dismantled.

During the seven-month project, 15 artists, including Tara Cooper, Julie Voyce and Charity Miskelly, transformed phone booths, which have been documented at http://tel-talk.blogspot.ca.

A number of artists also created phone booth-inspired art, on display at the Junction’s Telephone Booth Gallery. Tel-Talk: Art Interventions in Telephone Booths, a book of poetry, stories and photographs, was published last month.

Despite the vandalism, Poletto said the project was successful as it drew attention to the city’s crumbling and underused phone booths.

“I think it created a really great discussion around communities, and how people walk by things and don’t notice them,” she said.

“Despite the rapid change in technology, (phone booths) are still kind of here, lingering. . . . We wanted to see if they could be used in a different way.”

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