Friday, December 18, 2009

The Big Picture

Maclean stands on St.-Viateur with a clipboard and a pencil, peering across the street. He's an artist, but at the moment he's not making sketches, he's on a reconnaissance mission for Car-Free Mile End.

"I'm taking down the names of all the stakeholders," he says, as he notes the name and address of each business for future reference.

The sun is starting to go down, the light is bouncing off the buildings and seems suspended in the heavy air. It's warm for late November and there's been a smog warning every day this week.

The mild, sluggish quality of the day dovetails with Maclean's project, a community initiative designed as a local response to global warming and peak oil.

"I'm motivated by big picture issues," he says of his plan to get cars off St.-Viateur between Parc Avenue and St.-Urbain. "We have to do something."

Maclean is soft-spoken and never seems rushed, even though he's the father of a two-year-old son, paints in his studio three or more days a week, works at an art auction house, transports his family's laundry and groceries on a bicycle cart, plays ball hockey religiously on Sunday mornings and, now, spearheads a grassroots community group dedicated to opposing car culture.

"I used to want to design cars," he admits. As a kid in Winnipeg, he wanted to be an engineer. Although he's since changed directions, he never left behind the question, or the problem, of the car.

Maclean first started re-directing traffic on St.-Viateur about 9 years ago.

One summer morning we woke up to find the stop signs at the corner of Waverly transformed from "ARRET" to "ART."

Alternating letters were blocked out with red tape. It was so simple and striking that it was surprising no one had ever seen the art in the stop signs before. "People don't think about what surrounds them because they see it so often," Maclean told the newspaper at the time. "But my altering a stop sign just slightly makes them think twice."

Friend and fellow artist Billy Mavreas is prompt and pithy when asked to describe Maclean's work: "It's constantly evolving around a constellation of central themes – the Canadian landscape and road system."

In 2007, as a response to global warming, Maclean launched the satirical website He made tiny chrome magnets, perfect replicas of the "Legacy" or "Denali" tags on SUVs, except the names he covertly stuck on the backs of neighbourhood vehicles spelled: "Excess"; "Denial"; "Obligation"; and "Kyoto."

"I thought I could be the cheeky artist and put these Kyoto Motors magnets on cars and then say, 'OK, I've done my part,'" he says now. Over time, he realized that if he really wanted to close the gap between SUV drivers and cyclists, cynical gestures weren't helpful.

"Matt helped me see that," he says, referring to Mathieu Vick, cofounder of Car-Free Mile End.

At Café Olimpico on the first snowstormy morning of December, he and Matt talk global as well as local and vent their frustration over climate change deniers.

"Ultimately, peak oil will change things, whether people accept global warming as real or not," says Matt who is finishing a PhD in Astrophysics on the evolution of stars. "Instead of wasting 10 years debating whether it's real, we should act now! If we get cars off St-Viateur, it's going to help." Matt gives an edgewise glance and smiles, shaking his head at the notion of this small project as a remedy for a potentially doomed planet.

"It sounds ludicrous," concedes Maclean. "But the best case scenario to come out of Copenhagen is for people to ask, 'What's going to happen on the ground?' It's people who decide what their communities are going to do."

In the five months since they formed Car-Free Mile End, which has a core of six active members (including Zvi Leve, an urban transportation expert) and hundreds of fans on Facebook, they have created a blog,, and a website,

If you think the idea of getting cars off St.-Viateur is dreamy and unrealistic, have a look at the website FAQs: The answers are detailed and grounded in research. They explain the draw of a vehicle-free area for local businesses; make provisions for commercial delivery vehicles during certain hours; and cite the importance of avoiding a tourist-trap atmosphere.

And, if the notion of getting cars off a four-block stretch of one street seems like a local drop in the bucket, think about how cities will need to be rebuilt to adapt to life after peak oil. This is one of Nik Luka's main areas of study. He teaches architecture and urban planning at McGill. Matt and Maclean met with him to make their case and Nik Luka liked the idea. He's assigned a group of graduate students to study the potential of a car-free St.-Viateur and help survey locals.

Maybe this century-old, high-density, foot and bike-friendly neighbourhood can set an example and un-pave the way to carless, or at least car-light future.

To begin with, Car-Free Mile End plans to organize several festive, temporary street closures in summer 2010.

"It's not enough," says Maclean. "What's enough requires dismantling industrialized civilization. Rant, rant, rant," he adds, self-mockingly.

It may not be enough, but Maclean believes in the repercussions of individual actions. He refuses to own a car. He observes a self-imposed ban on flying. He dreams of putting "delivery by artist" in the contract so that when his dealer sells one of his paintings he can wheel it to the buyer by bike. And, he is "very much against pens" since finding out about the huge plastic (including disposable pens) trash vortex in the ocean.

In his studio full of tools and canvases and road signs, there are globes; the earth, the moon and stars. He's been painting the heavens, piercing vivid blue and orange tarps with grommets to form the shape of constellations.

He finds some solace in the grand scheme of the cosmos and the cyclical movement of planets around the sun.

Today, as snow whips by the window, he'll be working on one of his Dead End paintings, inspired by the black and yellow checkered sign that denotes the end of the road.

"It's the ultimate human predicament," he says, as he considers the checkerboard grid. "Whether it's personal, or the end of a whole civilization, it's like, Whoa. Slow down! a) you're going to die, b) you're part of something bigger."

The artist is here to signal us: our lives, our neighbourhood streets are part of the big picture. Stop. Proceed with Caution.


Titles of artwork by Maclean above (not including work in progress in studio):
Untitled (ART - Hutchison and Van Horne), 2005
Northern Landscape, 2007
Winter Dead-End #1 and #2, 2005


marke said...

hi, just though i would let you know that your links seem to be dead. nice post!

marke said...

sorry, i meant to say *thought* not though!

Hasana said...

This one needs more comments -- I really liked it. All things ecological tend to give me a sinking feeling of futility, but this didn't at all. To stop the cars, one must find art in arret.