A New Take on Live Art on Queen Street West

Of the eight easels set up in front of me, one of them is a mystery easel, open to any artist who is brave enough to put their name into a hat. If picked, they must take their chances and compete with the seven other artists lined up for Art Battle Canada’s event in Toronto.

As the ticket staff stamp my palm upon entering the ornate Great Hall on Queen Street West, I’m quickly asked for my phone number. At this year’s Art Battle Toronto, held on November 20, voting for the sixteen artists competing throughout the night is happening via text.

Although it was a cool evening, Art Battle Toronto was only warming up when the evening’s host, Tanya Casole-Gouveia, introduced the first round of competing artists. Some are self-taught, like Valdengrave Okumu, the local winner from last year, and some are professionals, like Angela Kim, an artist known for participating in the Toronto Transit Commission’s “Sketching the Line” public art exhibitions. The hall is split into two levels: the balcony, which became more populated as the evening went on, afforded an excellent bird’s eye view if spectators wished to view multiple easels at once; on the ground level, spectators were free to circle a small paper-lined box on the floor that houses the eight easels artists will work at the event. Audience members could purchase their drink of choice at the in-house bar and were free to fan out on all sides of the room: some flocked to the walls, like seventh-graders at a school dance, while others sar or leaned against the small stage at the front of the room. This was where you could find volunteers prepping the artists’ palettes and a DJ filling the room with pleasant beats.

“You should have seen the crowd in Victoria,” says spectator Nick Nines, who attended the British Columbian event. “You couldn’t move down there with all the people walking around.”

The crowd was surging and pulling the artists around like a whirlpool as audience members shuffled in to get a closer look, craning their necks and adjusting their phones to capture the moment. For each of the three rounds, competing artists only had twenty minutes each to finish their piece. “Did you notice their palettes?” Nines asks, gesturing to the selection of paints each artist had received just five minutes earlier. “They’re all completely different. They already have an idea of what they want to do.”

Nines and his wife Carrie came to Art Battle to support their son Rich, who’s the event’s DJ for tonight. “He was DJing the Victoria Art Battle too,” says Carrie. “Art Battle was very popular on the West Coast.”

This is the 736th Art Battle ever held. The battles themselves, which are orchestrated by Art Battle International, are held across North America, the U.K., Europe and Asia. The organization has held over 1,200 public events and hundreds of private and charity events since it began in 2001.  

Toronto may be a hotbed for arts events like Art Battle, and even though my personal experience with live art has been slim to none, I was drawn in as I made the rounds on the balcony. Within minutes, one dash of paint on Kim’s canvas became a city street, glowing green and grey like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Beside her stood Ardian Radovika, his imagination seemingly on a different planet as he created a warm, glowing portrait of a couple huddled together under an umbrella.

With the beats from the DJ bouncing through the room and alcohol available for purchase, the battle felt like a mix between a cocktail party and a themed club night. With an energetic, upbeat host keeping the evening moving swiftly, the transition from the first round into the second happened quickly. In the second round, artists were more inclined towards an abstract method of painting; in the third, the shapes and colours on the canvases became even more intriguing to analyze.

Competing artists included Jing Fou, Sonali Jain, Nisreen Askar, Valdengrave Okumu, Colin Panren, Angela Kim and Aridan Radovika — and the mystery artist who only identified himself by his first name written on the easel: Trason.

The final round, consisting of four artists, was more abstract than ever — the artists’ palettes, which looked so diverse in the first round, all now vaguely resembled one another. The gathering of spectators on the main floor had expanded and the artists were practically sealed into the small squares that housed their easels.

At the end of the event, all of the pieces that were created are auctioned off, selling for between 50 and 150 dollars.

In the final round of voting, Valdengrave Okumu emerged as the winner, and in the time it took me to retrieve my jacket from coat check and descend the carpeted staircase back to the main floor, the whole venue had nearly cleared out with only a few guests still lingering over the auction pieces. As we spilled out onto the street, the night had grown colder and very much missed the warmth of the Great Hall and the heat generated from the packed bodies overlooking the live art performed in front of us.

Walking home, my phone buzzed in my pocket — Art Battle still had my number and had thanked me for my vote.