If you take the CTrain to Kerby station, you might be wowed by the face of a Hollywood actor from films such as Wedding Crashers, The Royal Tenenbaums and Midnight in Paris.
Owen Wilson — with his distinctive nose and surfer hair — is spray painted in a black-and-white, photo-realist style with his “Wow” catchphrase above his head at the station.
Calgary artist Alex Kwong, 30, thought it would be funny, and would brighten the mood and the train platform.
Kwong painted Wilson’s face in an effort to amuse passersby.
“Somebody might be coming by and really having a bad day and then they see that, it makes them laugh and just changes their day,” he said. “Or someone comes by and sees the art for the technical aspect of it and gets inspired to do their own art.”
Someone, like a kid who saw one of Kwong’s murals. A six-year-old boy witnessed Kwong’s work and told his mom he wanted to paint like that. Then he went home and tried to redraw the image himself.
“That’s all worthwhile in and of itself,” Kwong said.
Deterring unwanted graffiti
Kwong painted the portrait in front of an audience of construction workers and CTrain passengers two weeks ago.
The project started when a paint supplier — a company called Visual Orgasm — put together a paint jam: an organized session where artists each get a section to paint.
Visual Orgasm paid him in paint. He used what he needed and kept the rest.
Art, jokes and feedback
Reaction has been strong, but mixed — some have opened an online dialogue with the artist. One person told Kwong that the Wilson mural was “more meaningless art for Calgary’s public realm.”
“I think people are quick to be really critical of where they think funding is going,” he said. Kwong stressed the city did not spend money to put Wilson’s face on a wall.
He said people often mistakenly think that all public art is funded by the city.
“The city’s not involved in every little piece of art that goes on,” he said.
Kwong hopes to engage the public with insights about what art can do for people, and hopefully generate a positive outcome.
His message, in part, is about connecting people with one another:
“Public art is about the response from the public, stimulating emotion and thought, and hopefully bringing people together. While maybe, with this piece, I didn’t provoke deep thought in your case, what I did do is offer the gift of a smile to Calgarians for a moment in their day — lightening the mood on an individual who is feeling the world’s weight or brightening someone’s wait for the CTrain in the freezing cold.”
“It actually turned out to be a thought-provoking piece,” Kwong said.
“I thought I was sort of cracking a joke.”
“I’m like, ‘I’m going to paint a really intense, touching portrait of Owen Wilson.’ And then people have to look at it and go, ‘This guy can obviously paint, he can paint whatever he wants, he’s painting Owen Wilson.’ It’s sort of funny.”
Even offline, people have questioned him and offered feedback on the piece.
Common queries have included, “Who is that? Why are you painting them? Why does this matter? Do they deserve to be painted?”
Painting the actor was a controversial choice.
“It’s interesting,” Kwong said. “It makes me sort of rethink what I’m doing with my art, my approach to it.”
You never know what will cause a stir, he said.
“You’re working on these pieces for so long, these concepts, and you think it’s really hard-hitting, right? And then everyone’s like, ‘Eh, whatever, cool. Good for you, man.’ And then you paint Owen Wilson and everyone’s coming out of the woodwork to share it… I didn’t think it was going to be much,” Kwong said.
“I’ve never got a response like this out of anything that I’ve done,” he added.
Kwong painted a four-storey parkade on Continental Towers alongside artist Sergey Ryutin in September. He said he’s also done a series of murals in Sunnyside, one near the train station.
“I’m just shocked it’s even blown up this big,” he said. “It’s funny, it’s cool. Hopefully, it’ll direct some stuff to my other artwork — I don’t know if I want to just be an Owen Wilson painter.”
Inspiration and interaction
Kwong has been doing murals for three years, initially pursuing architecture until art fully consumed his time. He likes the public interactions that come with street art and the added pressure of painting in public.
“You don’t want to slip up,” Kwong said.
“It forces you to think about what you’re doing,” he added. “You take it back to basics and really think about things before you lay some paint down.”
“It’s nice to be able to hone your technique to such a degree that you’re able to still interact with the public while you’re painting,” Kwong said. “I’m learning from people as they go by and I have conversations with them. You always meet different people than you ever thought you would in any other realm.
“You get people going to and from their office jobs. You get people going to and from their trade jobs. You get people even just in the community.”
The artist isn’t sure what will happen after construction is finished — that’s the fleeting nature of street art.
“Nothing is guaranteed in permanence,” Kwong said. “That’s another reason why you don’t want to go and just do something so complex and something that you’re really, really attached to. It’s just like, get something out that people will enjoy, that you will enjoy painting.”
Kwong hopes Wilson would like the painting. The piece took him three hours to complete.
“It’s sort of like a meditation: just get in the zone and get it done,” he said.