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Meet the artists and urban studies students making the Pan Am Path beautiful

Students, alumna use creativity, problem-solving skills to bring path to life

Photo of: Zee Bolad, Vineetha Sivathasan, and Zarish Asif

Zee Bolad, Vineetha Sivathasan, and Zarish Asif worked on art for the Pan Am Path, a multi-use path that’s part of the legacy of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. Photo: Johnny Guatto.

Who owns a city bridge? Who has final say over an art installation? The answers can be complicated.

Thanks to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, University of Toronto students working on high-profile urban beautification projects are learning what it takes to tackle city issues — and how to navigate the dizzying world of red tape.

Take the students who interned with Friends of the Pan Am Path, the main organizer of events celebrating art, nature and inclusivity along more than 80 km of multi-use trails. They attended meetings at City Hall and connected with city staffers and various stakeholders, ironing out the bevy of permits and applications that needed to be filed. And they acquired community building skills while working with organizations that will play host to festivals or designed murals and art installations along the path.

Another group of students chosen to design an art installation along the Pan Am Path near the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) got a whirlwind lesson on how to design public art. They prepared presentations, found engineers and contractors to help create sculptures, and learned the art of compromise — how to be open to design changes while keeping their core idea intact.

Along the way, their installation — which uses old animation devices to tell a story of inclusion for the Parapan Am Games — changed in size. The original plan called for several metal pinwheels ranging from four to 15 feet tall; now each pinwheel is just four feet tall and made of wood.

Students in both groups say insight they acquired is beyond anything they could have learned in the classroom. Their mentors and advisers concur.

“They got to see city building in action and how things operate,” said James Meers, executive director of Friends of the Pan Am Path. “They got a first-hand glimpse at what some city officials are doing and how they’re involved in projects like this. They got a better understanding of how local community partners and stakeholders are involved, and how much organizations need to go through to do things in the city. They have a better understanding of how it all comes together.”

Working together to find solutions

Photo of: Marina Jalandoni, Jason Ko and Anne Christian Marina Jalandoni, Jason Ko and Anne Christian are in their final year of undergraduate studies. As part of their urban studies course work, the trio was placed at Friends of the Pan Am Path, the group responsible for creating the continuous trail as a legacy project for the Games. Their internship led to summer jobs and they’ve continued working with Friends to help community organizations with weekly cultural and art events at 14 spots along the path.

Meetings with city officials were eye-openers for the student interns, hands-on lessons in bureaucratic wrangling between government officials and civic groups about where events could be held and the types of restrictions organizers faced.

“So many permits arise from different sectors of the city,” said Ko. “At first, we were very overwhelmed by the amount of permits we had to fill out. There was also confusion about which permits we had to fill out, or if they all fell under special events. You would expect the government to have it all structured.”

They also were taken aback by bureaucratic confusion initially over which government agency had jurisdiction over a downtown bridge near Fort York. They had thought city officials would know that information readily.

Now, they say, they understand the city is a sprawling entity with many parts — and  confusion is bound to happen.

“Although we talked about urban studies in our seminar, we’d always talk about the city and issues that arise in the city,” Christian said. “When you see it in person and sitting there, it’s different. Even though there are disagreements, compromises need to be made. You see different groups coming together to try and work together. That’s not fully seen in the readings.”

For the students who designed the art installation on the Pan Am Path at UTSC, it’s been a steep learning curve.

Architecture student Vineetha Sivathasan, visual arts student Zee Bolad and recent graduate Zarish Asif met in a conceptual art class two years ago. They each put in designs during the initial query and, when Sivathasan’s design was chosen, they worked together on the project.

They were the youngest artists chosen to have an art installation along the path as part of Friends of the Pan Am Path’s Art Relay Project.

And the least experienced.

Hart House ended up representing the group and helped with marketing, making sure the right permits were acquired and keeping the student artists on track.

But the students still had to do a lot of heavy lifting. They had to find a fabricator and engineer for the project and spent much of the past two years creatively finding solutions to many requests for design changes. A host of issues cropped up — new tennis courts going in at the Scarborough campus, safety concerns, digging restrictions and the fact the site is protected by the Toronto Regional Conservation Agency.

Art of the Compromise

The first element to go was the 15-foot-tall pinwheel made of metal. Officials were worried about the safety hazards it posed so the artists changed the design of the sculptures. Originally the plan called for flower-like pinwheels acting as a thaumatrope — where the wind spins the petals or blades quickly, allowing pictures etched on them to blend into an image. Now, instead of petals, the structures have wheels or disks that spin together to mimic a phenakistoscope, a 19th century animation device that creates the illusion of a moving image using sequential images.

Image below courtesy of Vineetha Sivathasan.

Image courtesy of Vineetha Sivathasan.

“Having a sharp, angular petal design, spinning at speed as little as 5km/h will be hazardous plus it being 15 feet tall and made of steel didn’t help,” said Sivathasan. “These were safety and liability concerns. And they were quite valid.

“We realized our design needed to be as user friendly as possible, and shouldn’t pose a hazard to the public and to the site that was protected. In the end, our project changed for the better. It looks more concrete structurally and it functions better structurally and aesthetically.”

That’s all part of working in the urban sphere, said Friends of the Pan Am Path’s Meers. The installation is now in place at UTSC  and there will be festivities at the site Aug. 4th and 5th. Meers hopes to find a permanent home for the installation, possibly Pearson Airport, once it comes down in October.

“When you’re working in the public realm, there’re certain restrictions,” said Meers. “You have to revisit your original concept and be flexible and be malleable to the circumstances. It’s a good learning curve for them at such a young age.

“In university you encourage lots of vision, and lots of possibility and creativity, but sometimes when you get out there in the real world, there are limitations to what’s possible, and you have to be flexible.”