by Andrew Coppolino | June 2021
Last year, the Art Fresco project launched in Waterloo Region and resulted in beautiful public art that complemented a restaurant’s patio setting. But more than that, the project sought to support the arts and hospitality sectors during the height of the pandemic and please patrons at the same time.
Artists were asked to submit their ideas for making the humble, utilitarian picnic table into a work of art at once attractive and practical. Fifty tables were the blank slate for area artists: what they produced is truly lovely. While the various designs speak for themselves, the project, embraced by so many, is what, in part, makes Waterloo Region so unique.
The Art Fresco project has returned, during our partial pandemic re-opening, for the summer of 2021, with an additional interactive component for food and art lovers in the region: visitors can access a “digital passport” to the Art Fresco Trail which gives them a chance to win prizes when they “check in” at participating restaurants.
Discovering these tables is a moment of pleasure, a bit of soul-soothing serendipity, finding art unexpectedly. Here are just three examples of the many picnic-table works of art.
Tara Cooper, “Planter’s Picnic” | Proof Kitchen + Lounge, Waterloo
In the slower times during the pandemic, Proof general manager Laura Umbrio had a chance to visit a few other patios.
“I was actually inspired by Sole’s patio and their table. I thought that Proof had a perfect setting for a table and we had to do it,” Umbrio says. “The community involvement really resonated.”
University of Waterloo art professor Tara Cooper’s “Planter’s Picnic” mingles with the flowers and plants in the Proof garden. “It’s perfect,” Umbrio says, adding that staff love it and always want to be involved in community initiatives. “We are just a tiny bit off the Uptown beaten path and work hard to engage with it as much as possible. Now, we have a show piece on the tour.”
Cooper’s table evokes the bold colours and decorative design work of Matisse. The table’s surface is rough in areas and Cooper has painted over the wood’s grain, which highlights the texture capturing its rustic outdoors quality – but she’s also carved out small flecks on the surface that reveal the wood beneath and give the herbaceous character of the painted plants a tactile quality. The design of plants, flowers, leaves and seeds direct our attention to the essential character of the nutrition we get when we eat.
“I’ve been doing research into plants and their healing properties and promoting digestion. That was part of the idea behind this design,” says Cooper whose ION art can be seen at the Mill Street station.
Inadvertently, the pandemic added another layer to Cooper’s work. “I took a virtual workshop offered in Colorado to prepare for a class. It included a technique called ‘pochoir,’ something I hadn’t really done before. It’s a basic stencil technique. This table, in part, came out of that workshop.”
Cooper sketched the individual drawings, cut them out, pasted them on vinyl, and then painted over top. “Some I painted and carved and some I used the pochoir technique,” Cooper says.
“This was a fun community project. I’ve always wanted to do more public art,” she says. “It contributes greatly, sparking dialogue and beautification at the same time it highlights local artists.”
Angela Grasse: “Crazy Quilt” | Snyder’s Family Farm, Bright
Kitchener-based artist Angela Grasse has been an artist for, she says, “my entire life,” and started showing her art, mostly based in textiles and mixed media, in 2008. The Art Fresco project and its medium were somewhat off of Grasse’s radar, however.
“I’ve painted furniture before but not a picnic table, in this way! I was thrilled that they liked my idea,” Grasse says.
The quilt is a well-known cultural icon in what was once known as “Waterloo County.” For Grasse, the icon, and its accompanying rich Mennonite history that dates to the early 1800s, was a touchstone she drew on for her vision of what textile art can be.
“I work intuitively,” says Grasse. “I started with the yellow circle and worked out from that.”
However, once again the pandemic stepped in to dictate artistic choice somewhat, she explains.
“When I got to Lot 42 (where the project was centred) the first day, there was only yellow, black and white paint there. Because of Covid, everyone was painting their homes and they’d run out of paint base. Okay, so I’ll start with yellow,” Grasse says, adding that others artists gave her some of their paint.
“I loved that local artists were all together expressing themselves while painting,” she says expressing her excitement at painting the table, a feeling she wants to be transfer to the people who sit at it.
“I hope they feel joy,” Grasse says. “There’s just a fun vibe to the table.”
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Allie-Marie Piggott: “Nature of Bridgeport” | The Lancaster Smokehouse, Kitchener
Waterloo Region native Allie-Marie Piggott used to live in the Bridgeport neighbourhood in northeast Kitchener, so she knew well the various features and geography of the surroundings.
“The project itself was very interesting,” Piggott says of painting picnic tables.
“I usually work on canvas or paper, so being able to work with a larger wood surface that’s a picnic table was a completely different medium. And that it would be displayed for people to see and use was exciting too.”
Piggott’s table has found a comfortable home on the patio at the Lancaster Smokehouse – along with a heaping helping of smokey serendipity too: the popular southern-inspired smokehouse is where her mother, Dana Keith Piggott, has worked for the nine years the Lanc has operated on Lancaster Avenue.
“It’s was pretty proud moment,” Keith Piggott says when she saw the table. “Allie-Marie lives in London now, so when I come into work and I see this everyday it makes me think of her. It brings back a lot of memories of the sights we’ve seen and that she’s painted on the table.”
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The table is great for kids, Keith Piggott adds. “The love it, and they can interact with it too. People really love it. It’s an awesome conversation piece.”
For Piggott the artist, the subject matter was close to home and close to childhood – it’s a sort of microcosm for the area just behind the Lanc.
“It was special to me. My family and I and my friends often hiked around the river and the bridge. We’d see deer and cranes and raccoons. The animals I painted on the table are from what I’ve seen in the area,” Allie-Marie Piggott says.Photo: Andrew Coppolino
The various components of the artwork – the sketching of the bridge and the animals – she composed on a tablet and incorporated into a grid, which then had to be transferred on the table. She estimates she spent several hours a day for a week or so painting the table, after the time spent with the idea and the initial sketch preparation.
“Being at Lot 42 was a unique experience, and it was nice to meet (the late) Ron Doyle. I made friends with some of the other artists and learned how they work and paint, too,” says Piggott.
It’s easy to look at and reflect on art – but these pieces are practical. That resonated with the artist. “I love doing practical art. This is something that I feel is appreciated in a different way.”
As Picasso poetically said, “art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” In that, we can include the months and months of dust that has settled on the soul of the region during the pandemic – and which these artists have started to sweep away. Although she has recently moved to London, Allie-Marie Piggott says that she “would love” to return to Waterloo Region, where she grew up, in order to paint another picnic table.
“I like making people happy with my art,” she says.
Head Out on the Art Fresco Table Trail
Passports for the Art Fresco Table Trail can be downloaded through Explore Waterloo Region’s website.
Please share your patio dining experiences with the Art Fresco tables on social media with the hashtag #ArtFrescoDining and #ArtFrescoTrail.
Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.