When I go into Janet Attard’s studio at 401 Richmond Street, I’m greeted by so many images of bicycles that I’m overwhelmed. “Bikes are beautiful and the sensation of riding can be expressed through art,” Janet explains.
Janet started as an art teacher at the Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park, where everyone came to know her as “the bike girl.” Her passion for cycling was so strong that people encouraged her to get involved at City Hall.
So, she did. She’d head into a meeting, and in the hallway would be met with endless posters related to cycling issues. But these posters consisted of unillustrated text in the same tired fonts, mercilessly photocopied in faded black and white. The cycling messages were being lost. She took some home, enlarged the posters and enlivened them with a bike stencil. Then, she rehung them. Months later, she’d see her posters, all of them having eluded removal and overpostering. People saw the stencils as artwork and were caring for them. She realized this was the perfect way to get a message out.
In 1994, Bike to Work Week coincided with a recycled bike auction, for which entrants were asked to decorate a bike to be auctioned off. Rather than decorating a bicycle, Janet designed a bike stencil. To her amazement, city councillors Jack Layton and Dan Egan got into an all-night bidding war on the item (Jack won.)
Shortly afterward, Janet was working at an event, and Jack and his wife Olivia Chow approached her.
“We’ve been collecting bike art for years now and are proud to have yours,” they said. This took Janet aback. “People make bike art?” she wondered. That was the beginning, for her.
Janet’s first stencil hadn’t involved any serious intent, and yet today she describes her art as a living project: this bike stenciling project, she says, will never be complete.
People are confused by what she does. They don’t realize the images are all freestyle, hand-drawn. Nothing here “comes out of a machine.” The stencils themselves are hand-cut, at hours and in places where she will not be distracted (hence her basement office). Janet does not own a telephone, nor does she have Internet access.
“I’m a nun of my art,” she laughs.
Although she has a few images she describes as “fantasy bikes,” most of her images are based on real bicycles. These images are so realistic that she’s had bike mechanics identify a brand name by the shape of certain parts.
Janet is very particular about her own bicycles. She prefers the ’70s women’s road bikes and the Mixie frames. (Mixie frames combine a hybrid frame, BMX wheels and a fixed gear.) Janet’s current bike is an earlier women’s road bike model, to which she has added upright handlebars. She likes that it’s clearly feminine. She once had a bike that included a high-quality Specialized derailleur, because it’s important to her that “women recognize quality on a bike.”
In fact, Janet wants everyone to recognize quality. Whenever she opens her doors for an art show, she says it’s “mind-expanding in a positive way for families.” They arrive naive but by the time they leave, they’ve discussed equipment, cycling habits and etiquette. They often approach her as if she’s a unique thinker, but after a conversation they realize “I’m a normal person, just like you.”
Even today, Janet’s agenda is not about getting stencils into people’s hands. She wants to get messages out. One thing that matters to her is bike education. She took the Can Bike course after being an urban cyclist for fifteen years. When she took the test, she realized she was not “some superstar” and that there is always more to learn. Whenever she interacts with the police, she shows them her card and is immediately treated with more respect.
When she attends cycling meetings at City Hall, she insists speakers use terms accessible to the common person, not “lawyer language.” She despairs at the bureaucracy. “Why is it all in secret code? Do they not want us to know?”
As well as promoting cycling in her own city, Janet has gotten involved with social groups all around the world. Some of her stencils have been reprinted in books, allowing others to make their own posters and petitions. She’s also donated images to a book on stickers, because she feels stickers are a conversation starter and a valuable resource. Janet is helping to get bike messages out. “I’ve totally immersed myself in art,” she says, “so I could be passionate and make a difference positively.”
Here in Toronto, Janet is becoming impatient with the city’s unfulfilled promises, with how slowly things move when the city’s officials aren’t entirely supportive, and how very quickly things move when the idea appeals to them. New bike lanes appear at a glacial speed, yet removal of an existing one can occur almost overnight. I too am becoming impatient and I echo Janet’s frustrations.
“If they wanted these things in Toronto,” she sighs, “they could just be done.”
A friend emailed me recently to ask about the book, and without knowing anything about Janet, they described me as a social artist, someone working to encourage change. Maybe we should all be giving that title some thought.