Brownstein: Montreal’s ‘muralists among the best anywhere’

Urban explorer Archie Fineberg has released another book on the city’s street-art scene, highlighting a dazzling array of murals and graffiti.

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On the corner of Ontario St. and Papineau Ave., Archie Fineberg is perched next to a mural paying homage to chansonnier Robert Charlebois. But as much as Fineberg values the cultural contributions of Charlebois, his awe is reserved more for the man who created this arresting mural and many others dotting the Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough: Laurent Gascon.

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What sets Gascon’s work apart from painted street art is its intricate composition of mosaic tiles. There are 15 such murals, mostly along Ontario St. E., honouring such vedettes as Pauline Julien, Yvon Deschamps, Diane Dufresne, Gilles Vigneault and legendary actress Janine Sutto.

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“Gascon’s work is just so stunning, but what makes it all the more incredible is that he puts them together piece by piece on site in summer, with the temperatures often over 30 degrees,” Fineberg marvels. “And he’s not a young guy, either, in his mid-70s.”

The fit Fineberg is no spring chicken, either, having recently turned 80. But there’s no slowing down this urban explorer. Few know the city better than this coureur des rues, and he does it with one prosthetic leg — the result of an amputation nearly seven years ago due to cancer.

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A former accountant, Fineberg decided to spend his so-called retirement scouring every part of the city in search of eye-catching street art, which he photographs for his books and website. He recently released his latest volume, Montreal Street Art Gallery II, a dazzling array of murals and graffiti whose front cover features muralist Elisa Rank’s magnificent tribute to Mexican painting icon Frida Kahlo — located in an alleyway at the rear of 2038 Jolicoeur St. in Verdun.

Fineberg’s first collection, Montreal’s Street Art Gallery: The Best of the City’s Graffiti and Wall-Art, came out in 2017, followed by a French version, Montréal, galerie à ciel ouvert.

To date, Fineberg has snapped more that 1,200 pictures for his books and website.

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“But I’ve only scratched the surface,” says the forever-smiling Fineberg, while taking me on a tour of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve’s street-art scene. “I figure there are over 2,000 murals all over the city. I keep discovering new ones every day, in the streets and alleys, in front and behind buildings. Our muralists are among the best anywhere.”

All by way of saying that Fineberg will doubtless emerge with yet another volume.

It’s not just local street-art contributors, either. Fineberg points out the striking Qanqutuurniq (Ingénieux et innovant) mural by the Indigenous team Embassy of Imagination on 2360 Ontario St. E.

“The detail is so marvellous, capturing so many aspects of Inuit life in the Far North,” Fineberg notes.

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It’s on to Fluke’s Lila at the Polish Federation on the side wall of 1956 Frontenac St. On 2222 Ontario St. E., Fineberg points out another Gascon. This one, honouring singer-songwriter Marjo, is particularly unique.

“It’s done on a curved surface, even though tile doesn’t bend. Gascon, who has since become a buddy of mine, is just so talented.”

So what possessed Fineberg, a man who spent almost all his adult life in front of a different type of book, financial ledgers, to turn to this art form?

“I was always a bit of an amateur photography hobbyist, focusing on wildlife and nature,” he says. “But prior to retiring nine years ago, I took a Photoshop course at Dawson College in 2007 and one of the assignments was to go out into the streets and find something interesting.”

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And he did: street art.

“I was so captivated by what I was seeing and finding for the first time in my life that I called Montreal’s tourism bureau to ask if it had any maps or literature in the field. But there was really nothing. They just advised: ‘Go everywhere, and you will find something.’ So I went everywhere, up and down streets, in every part of the island,” notes Finenberg, who lives in N.D.G. with his writer wife, Elaine Kalman Naves.

“What struck me was how many people seemed so unaware of this fabulous art around them, even those living so close to it. So I decided this would be my project. I started in N.D.G., where there are some beautiful pieces, and just kept going and going. There really isn’t a borough that doesn’t have some fantastic murals. I’ve learned along the way that murals are more than just the great Banksy. Now I’m studying street art across Canada and discovering there’s wonderful stuff in even the smallest of communities.”

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Fineberg acknowledges that the city’s street-art scene has received a huge boost with the annual MURAL Festival and Under Pressure Graffiti Festival. But his greatest concern, as well as that of many other mural lovers, is that this street art doesn’t get desecrated by taggers.

“Fortunately, most haven’t been,” says Fineberg, who earned a liberal arts degree from Concordia in 2016. “There is often a mutual respect, and many taggers avoid marking up many of these murals. It’s frequently a jealousy thing. But those who try to ruin them often get ostracized by other taggers. The good thing, though, is the city has put up designated legal walls for taggers to do their thing.”

Talk about what constitutes art brings up a discussion Fineberg had with late/great Montreal sculptor Stanley Lewis.

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“I asked him: ‘What is art?’ He simply crumpled up a piece of paper, tossed it out and said: ‘It is whatever is in the imagination of the artist, and if it does something for somebody else, then it’s art.’

“Simple as that.”

Archie Finenberg’s Montreal Street Art Gallery II costs $35; Montreal’s Street Art Gallery: the Best of the City’s Graffiti and Wall-art and Montréal, galerie à ciel ouvert are $32.95. The collections are available at fine bookstores as well as at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal and the McCord Stewart Museum. Website: 

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