Reclaiming Urban Spaces

Austin’s second grizzly mural appeared behind Artizan Zone in Downtown Kitchener at the end of May. • PHOTO COURTESY CHRIS AUSTIN
Austin’s second grizzly mural appeared behind Artizan Zone in Downtown Kitchener at the end of May. • PHOTO COURTESY CHRIS AUSTIN

Anna Beard

Making something new again, fighting demons, putting your mark on the world – content creators turn to art for a variety of different reasons. For Kitchener visual artist, Chris Austin, reclaiming lost environments just comes naturally.

“I started painting when I was 15, it was an escape from my struggles growing up. I was always drawing and doodling, and knew that someday I’d want to be an artist. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” said Austin.

Attacking visual art from an almost stoic and geometric angle, originality and experimentation run in large supply with Austin’s work. Each piece is different, even if the subject is similar.

“I think it’s really important for an artist to embrace originality. It took me years to develop my own style of work that stands out from the rest. It’s hard though as it seems everything has been done before. In the end, art is art, whether it’s been piggy backed or not,” he said.

Working in downtown Kitchener, Austin brought street art out of the shadows and back into the urban environment it was originally intended for.

Kitchener’s iconic bear murals first appeared last summer during a downtown art market, finding a home on the south side of StylFrugal. The second bear came to life this year towards the end of May and is located in the alley running behind Artizan Zone.

“I paint a lot of bears mainly because they are scary to me, yet beautiful creatures. My paintings aren’t based on one bear in particular, but I enjoy painting grizzlies the most,” explained Austin. “I wanted to leave statement pieces downtown, because I found the urban landscape to be bleak. I wanted to leave a message saying I’m here, enjoy it!”

Although the grizzlies are in a lot of Austin’s pieces, his portfolio is far more diverse than the exterior wall of a building. Offices, tabletops, cupboard doors, planks of wood – every surface is a canvas.

“Reclaimed surfaces is important to me. I like to create on old, often found, objects lessening my impact on the global environment. I enjoy taking something old, and making it new and exciting again,” said Austin. “I work with spray paint mostly when I paint murals, and here and there in the studio. It’s a fast, satisfying result. However, I paint with a lot of fluid acrylics in the studio and oil paint when I have the time.”

Austin has collaborated with a variety of artists in the region, such as musician Luke Michielson and graphic designer and screen printer Jon ‘Bearface’ Johnson. For him, the collaborations are a way to reach out and connect with a new audience.

“I enjoy collaborating with other artists, because I work well with other artists visions and similar tastes. Jon Johnson is an inspiring artist for me and I was honoured when he asked me to collaborate on some shirt designs,” said Austin. “It’s also cool to see my work in other forms of media rather than just on canvas or wall spaces. It’s all about getting your work out there for an audience that wouldn’t normally see it in a gallery setting.”

Austin’s grizzlies are just one of many public art installations found within Kitchener and Waterloo.

“I think it’s important for communities to embrace art, whether it be murals or sculpture or installation pieces,” said Austin. “It gives a sense of communication and creates a good buzz. It brings people together. Even if you don’t like art, you’d still talk about it being there to others, good or bad, it’s still talked about, leaving an impact.”

Creating big statement pieces, such as the grizzlies in downtown has no doubt raised the profile on Austin’s work here in Waterloo Region. Now, as he heads off to Toronto to set up shop in the big city, there’s no doubt he’ll carry a few fond memories of home along for the ride.

“I’ve received some great responses and feedback from the community about my work. I’m referred to as the ‘bear guy’ now to people that don’t know my name. I get stopped on the street from strangers and get nothing but respect and good vibes – it’s very rewarding to me.”

Anna believes in defying expectations when it comes to being a millennial that wears Raybans. She spends a lot of time wandering around town spending money she doesn’t have on things like tacos, coffee, and Moleskine notebooks. She will also walk your dog for free.