From upscale residences to busy underpasses, local artist makes his mark

Andrew Reeves, Christopher Griffin
From left, Ottawa architect Andrew Reeves of Linebox Studio and Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin in the lobby of The Slayte, which features Griffin's painting, Ottawa River, as its centrepiece artwork. Photo by Caroline Phillips

For such a popular and prolific artist, Christopher Griffin is surprisingly quiet and understated. But don’t let his soft-spoken nature fool you; he cares an awful lot about his city and is willing to go to extraordinary efforts to enhance it.

Griffin is behind a number of inspiring acts of artistry that have helped breathe life into otherwise dull and unwelcoming urban spaces. Sure, his efforts have led him to occasionally colour outside the lines, as the saying goes, but his willingness to take innovative and bold action is just what the city needs, according to Ottawa architect Andrew Reeves, owner of Linebox Studio. 

“He’s passionate about his city; he wants to make it better,” said Reeves. 

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From left, Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin and Ottawa architect Andrew Reeves of Linebox Studio in the lobby of The Slayte, which features Griffin’s painting, Ottawa River, as its centrepiece artwork. Photo by Caroline Phillips

OBJ interviewed both Reeves and Griffin recently in the lobby of The Slayte in downtown Ottawa. The 11-storey building is located on Albert Street, within walking distance of the Ottawa River. The former vacant office tower, created in a post-modernist style, was recently transformed into an attractive 158-unit rental apartment complex with rooftop views and a hidden courtyard.

Linebox Studio was hired by CLV Group Developments to do the redesign work. Griffin was commissioned by CLV to create the large painting that now hangs in the bright and spacious lobby. It was important to CLV and InterRent REIT, the project’s developers, that the centrepiece artwork be done by a local artist.

Not only does the painting, entitled Ottawa River, make a lasting impression on visitors and residents entering the building, it can also be clearly seen from the street by passersby and motorists. Its bright hues catch the eye.

“This city needs more colour, instead of all this soul-sucking grey that’s all around us in our harsh climate,” said Reeves. 

At 14 feet tall and seven feet wide, the canvas was too large to fit into Griffin’s studio. As a result, he completed his painting in the lobby of The Slayte.

The artwork feature’s Griffin’s signature red canoe. As an avid white-water paddler, he has a fondness for canoes. His choice of boat also pays homage to the Indigenous history of the area. 

It’s common to spot Griffin’s work in residences and busy restaurants throughout Ottawa. 

“I love seeing a piece in someone else’s home, someone else’s environment, hanging in their world,” said Griffin, whose concrete etchings of animal references can also be found on the exterior of some buildings.

Christopher Griffin’s concrete etching of an owl on his Centretown art studio. Photo by Caroline Phillips

On the philanthropic side, the artist has raised nearly $80,000 for the Ottawa Food Bank over the past three years. He cumulatively painted and sold nearly 50 original artworks to the highest online bidders, donating all the money to the local charity.

What many residents may not realize is that Griffin has also been taking the initiative to improve Ottawa’s drab public spaces through his creativity, public expression, civic engagement and beautification. 

Most cities may be known for big projects. In Ottawa, those could be a rapid transit system or the dream of relocating the Ottawa Senators hockey team to the downtown core. But there’s more to the story, Reeves argues.

“Big moves are great,” said Reeves, whose firm has designed for or is currently working with such like-minded clients as Shopify, CLV Group, Fleming Developments, Windmill Developments, Saint Charles Market, Dream Developments – Zibi, Hub350, and many private homes and downtown restaurants, including Riviera, El Camino, Datsun, Giulia and Fauna, to name a few. 

“But it’s actually the people in the city that usually make the city happen,” said Reeves, who points to Griffin as an example of an artist taking action. “Yes, we could talk for a thousand hours about what’s wrong with Ottawa and rant about where it could be going — it’s easy to be a critic, isn’t it? But, few people in the city are actually making a difference and making a change and not just talking about ‘what if.’”

Griffin has left his artistic mark on at least two urban underpasses. Workers had previously covered the areas with shapeless patches of mismatched grey paint to conceal graffiti. It looked “godawful and depressing,” said Griffin.

“I feel almost a specific responsibility, as a visual person. I can change this, it won’t take me a lot of time and it won’t cost me a lot of money. I can change it into something … better. I’m not saying it’s a work of art, but it’s better than the grey.”

Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin’s mural, Threatened Rhinos of Bayswater, located beneath the Bayswater Avenue underpass. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Griffin’s unsanctioned mural Threatened Rhinos of Bayswater, located beneath the Bayswater Avenue underpass, earned him a nod in the community initiatives category from the 2021 Ottawa Urban Design Awards. The awards program celebrates projects in Ottawa that achieve urban design excellence. The jury, in its comments, commended the artist on the care shown toward the beautification of the public realm.

Griffin said it was never his intention to get drawn into the world of graffiti. It started some eight years ago, when his art studio was hit by vandalism. Somebody had spray-painted their personalized signature, known as a tag, on the outside of his Centretown building, located on the southeast corner of Kent Street and Gladstone Avenue. The unfortunate incident inspired him to turn the graffiti tag into a whimsical animal figure, using his paint and art supplies.

“Had they not tagged my studio, I never would have gone down that path,” said Griffin, while recalling how disheartened the defacing of his business left him. “I was really bummed.”

Griffin transformed the spray-painted moniker into a pony, later sharing photos of his work on social media. The post went viral.

“I realized people had a really visceral reaction to graffiti; they felt powerless and didn’t know what to do,” said Griffin of the tremendous support and encouragement he received from the public. “I got all these comments about having made lemonade out of lemons.”

The exterior of Christopher Griffin Art Studio is now home to more than half a dozen of his painted creatures from the animal kingdom, each one originating from an uninvited graffiti tag. He makes a point of matching the colour and line width of the tag (it’s considered disrespectful to paint over someone else’s graffiti). 

“I’m trying to make it look like one person did the whole thing,” he explained. “Their tag is still there, exactly as they left it. I just go really, really close. I don’t think they (the taggers) see the nuance.”

Griffin said he has no plans, going forward, to enhance graffiti tags unless they appear on his studio, on the existing underpass murals, or if he’s asked to help a property owner who’s been targeted. 

He would like to see his murals serve as a starting point to a more serious conversation about how Ottawa can push its urban design forward. “To me, I don’t like ugly,” said Griffin. “I walk by an underpass with grey patches and I turn them into bulls.”

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