Back in January, in those long-ago days when we could still travel, I was lucky to spend some time in Colombia where I enjoyed the vibrant public art of Medellin and Santa Marta. Colourful murals depicting local flora, fauna and community life covered the walls of public buildings and private houses. Back here in Ottawa, I have discovered the murals of Colombian-Canadian artist Claudia Salguero, bringing warmth and colour to our neighbourhood.
We have to agree with Salguero that, compared to her home town of Bogotá, “Ottawa is a pretty grey city, with lots of huge walls that are empty.” Salguero’s vision brightens up these bare, uninspiring expanses. Here in Sandy Hill, we are fortunate to have three of her artworks within easy walking range. In fact, Ottawa’s largest mural climbs nine storeys up a building right on the northern edge of our neighbourhood, at the corner of Rideau and Wurtemburg streets. Installed two years ago, “Transformation” was the product of a collaboration with dozens of volunteers from diverse backgrounds. Salguero sees her projects as not only works of art but also as ways to engage people in the creative process and foster a spirit of community and empowerment.
It was the community of students at Viscount Alexander School—120 of them in Grades 3 to 6—that was engaged in producing the second mural in our community. Titled “Diversity,” its multicoloured face has looked out at passersby on Mann Avenue since the spring of 2019.
Salguero’s most recent mural in Sandy Hill is just a couple of blocks away on the fence beside the Ottawa Community Housing office at 731 Chapel St. in Strathcona Heights. Pandemic restrictions made the artist’s community engagement approach more complicated to achieve, but with the help of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and the organization Multicultural Arts for Schools and Communities (MASC), 32 neighbourhood families got materials and guidance from Salguero to each create a one-foot square. Salguero then assembled these small canvases and added her own touches to bring them together. Her additions included several butterflies, one of her favourite motifs. She sees them as symbols of freedom, hope, transformation and endurance—important messages for our times.
Salguero is not resting on her laurels. She already has plans for her next project, a mural entitled “Wisdom” that will be a tribute to universal Indigenous and ancestral wisdom. She will bring together Ottawa-based Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers from around the world and members of the community to join her in this creation. Inspired by themes of climate change and the need to reconnect with nature, Salguero says, “Art invites you to feel, to stop, to see, to understand what is this piece of art doing in your mind or in your spirit.” Her vision is for “Wisdom” to be another very large mural, covering the entire side of an Ottawa Community Housing high-rise in South Ottawa. “The more support I have,” she says, “the bigger this mural can be.” She invites the public to participate in this important piece of public art for our city by contributing to her Go-Fund-Me campaign from her home page at www.claudiasalguero.com/.
When you’re feeling like you need a lift from pandemic isolation and a long dark winter, take a mural walk from the northern to the southern boundary of Sandy Hill and be cheered by the colourful walls Claudia Salguero has given us. In the depths of a cold January day, perhaps I will imagine that I am back in warm and sunny Colombia.