Ground Control

TEXT Bethany Gibson
PHOTOS Roadsworth

A giant zipper opens the asphalt, scissors cut the dotted centre line of a busy street, hands claw up through the pavement, a light switch is flicked on. When these stencilled images started appearing on the streets of Montreal in 2001, many thought the pieces–cleanly and cleverly integrated with the urban infrastructure and road markings–were the work of the city itself. 

Street artist Roadsworth loves that confusion. He wants to incite surprise and delight, to throw passersby off their rhythm, out of their reverie. To be startled, to question, to think. He pulls us into the conversation, demanding aesthetic, intellectual and active participation in this space we call public–but which is in fact highly managed, and discouraging of true engagement. Roadsworth’s playful tone calls to us to be playful, embodies the energy and potential that our shared space has to delight, to connect us with each other, to stimulate imagination and compassion.

His artistic language is satirical, underlining the absurdity of many facets of urban living and consumerism, and subverting the language of advertising which so dominates our field of vision and culture in North America. 

Roadsworth had pulled off close to 300 interventions when he was arrested in 2004. He was charged with 51 counts of public mischief, which threatened huge fines, jail time and a criminal record. Prominent members of the arts community in Montreal and beyond, as well as people who had seen and enjoyed what he did, rallied support, and a wider discussion–about public art, about who uses public space and how–was opened. Even before the resolution of the court case (Roadsworth paid a nominal fine, and painted a schoolyard as community service), the artist was granted a permit by the city to execute his first commission. Since then, he has made public art around the world, for private organizations, arts festivals, municipalities and schools, including most recently, the Eaton Centre in Montreal (Fragile is Roadsworth’s first major indoor installation).

A Roadsworth piece takes inspiration from and refers to its surroundings–natural, architectural and historical–and requires that we look not only at the creation itself, but also the environment in which it resides. The urban landscape can be ugly, uninspiring, lacking in obvious humanity or aesthetic consideration; Roadsworth challenges an inherent assumption that it must be so by injecting beauty, colour, humour and a sense of joy and wonder, where before there was just a parking lot. CA

Bethany Gibson is co-author of the recently published book Roadsworth (Goose Lane Editions), and the fiction editor for Goose Lane Editions. She lives and works in Fredericton, New Brunswick.