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Public intimacy

Former AGO Artist-in-Residence Ness Lee gets deep about street art and self-exploration.

Ness Lee mural 2

Image by Bret Kelly, courtesy of Ness Lee 

We’re continuing to explore notable street art, and this week we venture into the unique realm of Underpass Park in Toronto’s West Don Lands neighbourhood. Equipped with a skate park and basketball courts, this beautiful public space is painted with a mosaic of murals and graffiti. One of the contributing artists is Toronto’s Ness Lee, whose intimate character illustrations are responsible for some of the city’s most interesting murals and works of public art. She was one of the AGO’s recent artists in residence, culminating her time at the Gallery with an interactive installation entitled We Have Together.

We recently connected with Lee to discuss her mural in Underpass Park and the philosophy of street art.   

AGOinsider: Can you explain the concept and inspiration behind your mural in Underpass Park?

Lee: At the time I was mourning many things; the passing of my grandma, the loss of friendships, having to say goodbye to a lot of innocence and trust I innately had for people and my environment. I was thinking about support, having structure and stability—which is something my Ahpo was to me, we had a very intimate relationship. Especially along the lines of mourning and grief—how uncomfortable it makes people feel; how quickly in society we are expected to move past it. It was an incredibly hard time for me to feel like I had anyone. 

AGOinsider: It’s hard to mistake the similarities (specifically hair) between yourself and the characters you often depict. How has creating art influenced self-exploration for you?

Lee: I completely understand how it looks like me — with the long hair. My reasoning I often say is especially learning how to draw human features we can often refer to the mirror. It reminded me how features can reference a specific background or race. 

I do identify with the figures as a feeling. I have always felt my body was a feeling I couldn’t quite grasp. The way a figure can move, be free on a page, exist and take up space has always felt freeing to me in ways I feel like I couldn’t ever be, or embody. 

Ness Lee mural

Image courtesy of Ness Lee 

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underpass mural by Ness Lee

Image courtesy of Ness Lee

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Ness Lee sketches

Image courtesy of Ness Lee 

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Ness Lee sketches for underpass mural

Image courtesy of Ness Lee 

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AGOinsider: If you could paint a mural on any surface on the face of the Earth, what would it be and why?   

Lee: It doesn’t sound as grandiose as one might expect and maybe a bit silly, but at the moment, a swimming pool. With permission of course. I love painting murals, as challenging as it can be, but consciously I’m still trying to learn and understand how I feel about it—on a level of respecting our land and the people that live on it. Also considering the people who live around that mural, especially as settlers. 

AGOinsider: As an artist who has completed a great deal of public art, what do you feel is the role of murals and street art in society? 

Lee: As mentioned in the previous question, I’m still trying to understand that. Much of it is also due to the lack of knowledge I have in the history of murals and graffiti culture. I do think there is something wonderful about how unifying it can be when it comes to art and being able to reclaim a space for a new meaning. We often don’t get that choice when it comes to a huge advertisement that we are forced to look at, as it influences our consciousness, inducing a sort of lacking, whether we like it or not. So in a way I do feel like creative community initiatives like murals are very important when it comes to shaping our environments because it is so much a part of our day-to-day lives. Lately I have been realizing how much of our environment can shape our living, our moods and how we feel about our existence — how much bad design is out there that can affect our minds and our outlook on things. However, I do also see how much public art and murals/street art are used to gentrify or create the illusion of a desired social class in the space it occupies. It is these factors that really make me re-evaluate the responsibility of art and being an artist. I’m still learning at the moment.  

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