Fantasy inspired doorways, hand-painted chairs, oversized guitars and seven-foot tall story telling poles that reach to the sky; objects that could be found in our favourite fairy tales decorate the streets of downtown Orillia all summer long during the grand scale outdoor art exhibit Streets Alive! festival.

Held annually from mid-June to Thanksgiving, the themed outdoor exhibit –showcasing work by local and Ontario wide artists – helps to stimulate the local economy during the summer months when most people flock away from the city and into cottage country.

As it enters its seventh year, the festival prides itself on creating an environment for appreciating local art and allowing artists the chance to display their work while interacting directly with the community in a comfortable, informal setting. Each year, Streets Alive! selects a theme for the festival’s artwork, allowing artists to apply with a plan for the theme and create working with the city’s community in mind.

Founder and project manager of Streets Alive! Leslie Fournier says the festival helps to support both the art community and local businesses by marrying the two in order to actively stimulate tourist traffic in the summer months all while beautifying the city – and stirring up a little excitement for local talent.

“[Street’s Alive] is a city beautification and culture place making program and event,” said Fournier. “I was looking for ideas on how to brighten the streets and a way to create a wow factor to bring tourists in and encourage people to spend time and shop downtown.

“The broader goal and picture is to help Orillia become a real destination for cultural tourism and to brand Orillia as an art Mecca – a place that is known for its art and creativity,” said Fournier.

Inspired by Moose in the City – a hugely successful outdoor art project which was put on by the City of Toronto in 2000 which featured 326 life-sized moose sculptures placed throughout the city that were decorated by local artists – Fournier knew she wanted to create a similar style of street scape that was unique, culturally stimulating and show off the talents of local artists while reflecting the city of Orillia.

“It came down to what makes people get excited and what makes me turn my head when I am travelling,” said Fournier. “So I took that inspiration for the concept for Sculptures on the Street but created something that reflected the city more in the theme,” said Fournier. “So that year [2010], it was the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival, so it was perfect to use that and embrace music and art. That is where the very first Street’s Alive came from and Guitars on Parade emerged out of.”

Guitars on Parade featured 50, seven-foot fiberglass guitars hand-painted to celebrate 50 years of Mariposa Folk Festival. The guitars were sponsored by local businesses and decorated to celebrate the sponsor, the theme and the city as a whole. The festival quickly expanded from there; with walking tours offered to visitors and hands-on activities, demonstrations and competitions revolving around that year’s theme held amongst the artwork.

Guitars on Parade set the precedent for the grandeur to come in following years; with themes to follow including Sixty Sails where artists transformed the eight-foot sail panels of 60 boats into personal works of art; Leacock Chairs hosted 50 pieces of art modeled on writer Stephen Leacock’s favourite reading and writing chair; Letters of Orillia featured 50, six foot tall, 200 pound metal sculptures of letters of the alphabet; Art Grows Here which had artists apply their vision and talent to 40 oversized metal planters; and Doors of Downtown Orillia which had artists repurpose 37 free-standing doors.

Fournier said it is up to her to decide on a theme each year, but she gladly takes recommendations and suggestions from members of the community and always ensures the projects have the same parameters to maintain the quality of each year’s artwork.

“I knew the art would always have to be big, oversized pieces – because as soon as you put something on the sidewalk it loses scale,” said Fournier. “So they have to be big to have a presence. I have to also think about how the sculptures have to be weather proof, hold up to the elements, relatively vandal proof and connect to the community.”

The 2016 festival theme Story Poles will be the biggest yet. Featuring 33 vertical sculptures, Story Poles will be a one-of-a-kind endeavor. Evolving from previous years where artists were handed a sculpture to create with, this year’s repertoire of artists must create their seven-foot tall Story Pole from scratch given only dimension parameters – allowing for more creativity and diversity in artwork. 

“Unlike in past years, the artists get nothing to start with,” said Fournier. “In the past we gave them a shape or a piece to add their
art to, but now it has evolved into something that you have to start
from scratch.

“This makes it a little more challenging for artists,” said Fournier. “It has elevated the creative aspect. We are currently receiving incredible interpretations of the theme; it has become much more wide open to creative interpretation.”

Fournier said the way art tells a story has always inspired her, so she chose to pursue that idea for 2016’s theme in hopes of inspiring others through the sculptures.

“The word story to me is very powerful – it can be very emotional,” said Fournier. “I had this idea floating in my head of stacked art and vertical art. And I thought, ‘if I can think of a theme using the word story and connect it to sculpture, it can be interpreted in great ways’.”

The sculptures are voted on each year by both public vote and a collected jury to decide which artist will receive the grand prize and runner up winnings. Past years have seen over $20,000 dollars in prize money awarded, with first place receiving $10,000 dollars.

“It was important to me right from the beginning, and I made sure, that the artists would receive money to work with,” said Fournier. “And I wanted to hand out some prize money to the artists and make it as fun and interactive as possible.”

The fresh air art festival is known to attract thousands of locals, tourists and cottage folk to downtown Orillia all summer long to absorb and enjoy both the street art as well as the downtown core; annually over five thousand people have flocked to the city core for the grand unveiling of the sculptures on kick off day each June.

All fundraising is performed by Fournier, with many generous donations and sponsorship received from local merchants and businesses, the city and community support. For 2016, sponsorship and/or ownership of each Story Pole cost $1,500 dollars – with all proceedings going to support the festival and artwork.

“The city and people in it are very supportive and it has allowed us to grow each year,” said Fournier. “Today, we have a proven track record in bringing people into the city. Businesses now want to get involved and have their name put on the art. It took time, but you have to prove yourself to gain support, and we have.”

This year’s festival will also feature a number of artists from outside of Orillia – as the festival’s popularity grows and word spreads throughout the province.

“With each project about 70 per cent of the artists are local from Orillia,” said Fournier. “But we have also had artists from Toronto and Muskoka, the Peterborough area, Oshawa, the whole area. This year one of our artists is even from the Picton area.”

Written By: Gabrielle Tieman