For a Franco-Ontarian artist Mique Michelle, graffiti is visual communication and a way of sending a message and raising awareness.
The artist is back in Timmins this summer working on the youth mural initiative, organized by Kristin Murray who is a health promoter at Misiway Milopemahtesewin Community Health Centre and a Timmins councillor.
The goal of the project is to have elders share their teachings with youth and then depict the teachings in murals.
The first mural was done at the Timmins airport. What was supposed to start as a project with only two murals has expanded with many colourful paintings that can be spotted across the city.
Michelle says the majority of work is done behind the scenes as Murray is the one who applied for funding, talked to the property owners, ordered spray paint and found her a place to stay in Timmins.
“Most murals, 80 per cent of the work, you don’t see it. It’s not the paint. It’s the conversation and all that stuff,” Michelle says.
Murals highlighting Indigenous teachings can be seen at Misiway, the Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Centre, Porcupine Advance, Timmins City Hall, Timmins and District Hospital, Timmins Flower Shop, Timmins Chamber of Commerce and at Gibby's.
The other locations getting murals this summer are the former PACE building at the corner of Cedar and Third, the Urban Farm in South Porcupine, under the Mattagami Bridge, the Timmins and Area Women in Crisis, and Northern Cash Advance.
Michelle is currently working on a mural on Birch Street South which will show two cormorants to represent a water teaching. She’s already excited about her next murals
“With the women’s shelter, I hope a lot of men come and read, come and look, pay attention,” she says. “This mural started after the women’s march.”
The mural at the city hall depicting two hands holding a feather is her favourite.
“I didn’t have to provide a sketch. We talked to the councillors, we talked to Mayor George Pirie. And then the next day I walk in and the scaffolding was up and the priority is to make sure I was safe while I was painting,” she says. “That tells you a lot. If we’re willing to ask and talk and inform the city councillors, we’re able to do a lot.”
Her self-described style is “very colourful and messy.” She points out how her murals are never painted low so that they are protected from salt and snow or from damage from other people.
She says graffiti allows to keep the dialogue going. Public’s perception towards it is more positive now, she notes, but laws and penalties for graffiti in many places can be “more severe” than for other crimes.
“This is a way for visible and invisible minorities to have a safe way of putting their opinion out there,” she says.
“It shouldn’t be up to people who are visible minorities to deal with racism. Racism is a white people’s problem. And I find with murals, it’s leaving a message there and not having to take all that shit from other people.”
Born in Field in West Nipissing, Michelle said growing up she didn’t want to be an artist. Instead, she wanted to be a butcher.
“In my family, they’re hunting, they’re bringing back their meat. And everything we’re doing is gathering together and my grandma would show me how to prepare the deer, partridge and the ducks,” she says.
She briefly studied culinary management at Canadore College and then pursued political science at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. As a métisse, she says she experienced incidents of racism in her community which made her feel “really upset” and “useless.”
It wasn’t until she lived in France when she was given a can of spray paint at a protest that her interest in graffiti art started.
Michelle also worked as a facilitator at Fédération de la jeunesse franco-ontarienne for 17 years and has painted abroad, in countries like Mexico, Ivory Coast, Sweden and the United States.