Public Art 101: What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to be a Public Artist)

     Hi Everyone! I recently noticed the lack of user-friendly online resources for artists who want to find out how to acquire public art commissions. Over the years working as a public artist in Montreal, I’ve learned some valuable tips and tricks. I’ll be doing a series of biweekly posts here on my blog to share my experiences and hopefully to inspire those who may be having a tough time breaking into the industry.

     The things I’ll talk about here might seem a little overwhelming but will hopefully save you some stress and anxiety in the long run. Besides, as an artist you’re probably already used to stepping outside your comfort zone!

Be Smart With Your Budget

     I know of a few people (I won’t mention any names) who have lost out on making money from huge public art commissions because they weren’t careful enough with their initial budget. The total artwork budget includes your artist’s fee, copyright, fabrication, materials, insurance, installation, and possibly others. Typically, the artist fee is around 15-20% (25% in exceptional cases) of the total budget. Some of this should be allocated toward copyright, and some for your fee. The ratio of this can depend on how much work you will be doing on the project. Copyright allocation is important because this is the amount you are given for the copyright of your artwork design FOREVER!  It’s also important for tax purposes. Copyright fees get calculated differently. Ask your accountant.

     Often, there is no money left over for landscaping in the overall construction budget. If that’s important for the artwork, put it into your own budget. Landscaping always goes in at the end of construction so unfortunately, the budget allocated for that is often gone or over-budget by then.

It’s Not Only Creative Work

     You’re going to need some leadership and people skills to excel in this line of work. Expect to be a project manager: You’ll be liaising with administrators (from the government as well as the commissioning body), fabricators, architects, possibly engineers, other subcontractors, or employees. For commissions with Cities, there can also be a lot more interaction with City Council. In some cases, you may have to do a presentation at a Council meeting.

You’re Going to Have to Walk Your Talk

     You can expect that you have to do exactly what you proposed you’d do. For the Quebec program, there is almost no wiggle room. As they say, “it wouldn’t be fair to the other artists to modify the design”. So that means when you pitch your idea and your budget you’d better have done your homework and know that it’s a realistic budget.

     I know you’re thinking, “this seems like a lot of work, I’m not sure if I’m up to the job,” but I can tell you that practice does make it easier over time, and besides, you don’t have to complete the whole project from inspiration to inauguration in a single day! This is the kind of thing that works best if you break it down into little steps and stay open to lots of help from outside parties.

    Leave your comments, questions and tips for other artists below, I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback and I’m happy to answer any specific questions you might have. Also, check out my Pinterest and Instagram accounts for inspiration. Over the next few weeks we’ll get into the specifics of what the Quebec Percent-for-Art program is and how to apply for it.

2014: What a year it's been!


It’s that time of year… reflecting on the past, and making goals for the upcoming year. For me, looking back fills me with great pride and a lot of energy moving forward. In early January of 2014, I joked that 2014 was going to be the year of the “Shelley” (playing on the Chinese zodiac). And I've got to say… it was! I had 3 public art commissions come to completion this year, with the MUHC hospital mural being my largest artwork to date. I’m anxious for the hospital to officially open in April of 2015 for the public to see this 640 square feet mural, Structura habitata,  in person. As well, there was the mural "Croissance" (Growth) for an elementary school (École Katimavik-Hébert) in Ville-St.Laurent commissioned by the Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board. To end the year, there was the AMT mural (Tissu urban) at the new Saint-Michel - Montreal-North train station...all aboard!  Worth noting, all three of those projects were fabricated and installed by my longtime collaborators, Mosaika Art & Design

2015 is already set to be a big one. I’ve been awarded an outdoor commemorative sculpture commission in Pointe Claire (West Island of Montreal) honouring the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. Landscape architect Eileen Finn and I are looking forward to breathing some new life into this historical site. I have also been shortlisted  for a project for one of the new LRT stations in Ottawa. The station I’ve been shortlisted for is Parliament Station. No pressure… :-)

I’ll also be starting some new projects and research in Brazil in the coming year, collaborating with communities in Bahia and in Rio de Janeiro.  Stay tuned for updates on these projects on my blog throughout the year. 

Stay happy, healthy, and creative 

TISSU URBAIN - Inauguration

These photos were taken Monday, November 17th. I'm so proud to have my work in this prominent location and I hope it continues to be a part of this area's urban fabric for many decades to come. 

You know a project is officially done when there's a ribbon-cutting ceremony!  I kind of wish all my projects had that kind of grand finale. In this case, it was more than just to mark the completion of my artwork, but to inaugurate the opening of a new commuter train station in St-MIchel - Montréal North. This AMT station is part of the new commuter train line going out to Mascouche, on Montreal's North Shore.

I also want to give a shout out to my fabricator, Mosaika Art & Design, in Montreal, for the amazing work they did to translate my original  artwork design in ceramic. I literally can't tell the difference between a photo of my original, and a photo of the final product! 


"What's my inspiration you ask?"  I've been pitching projects back to back this year and it feels like inspiration can come from strange or less obvious places sometimes. Last week, I stumbled upon an amazing wood retail store, selling rare and unique scraps of wood, veneer sold in large rolled sheets, and wood-carving tools of every size. It was across the street from the AMT station where I just installed a ceramic mural, in Montreal North. It was very challenging to keep my credit card in my wallet! 

I dedicated the MUHC project to my mom this year, who in my eyes, is a quilt guru. Her quilting crew in Melville, Saskatchewan  (and these ladies are some serious quilters by the way) make some of the most fantastic patterns. I was able to get a few quilting genes thankfully and I think when you do what you love inspiration seems like a pretty tough thing to define.

In some of my recent prep work for an upcoming proposal I got the chance to uncover some pretty interesting historic archives. Some of the documents that I researched were so personal and touching that they moved me tears. I'm sometimes surprised at what a sap I can be sometimes. 

I guess in a comforting way I am ok with not being able to tap into that inspirational place on demand...until, that is, they develop an app for that.

Quilt detail by my mom, Mary Miller

Quilt detail by my mom, Mary Miller

Pincushion design by my mom, Mary Miller

Pincushion design by my mom, Mary Miller

AMT Montréal North - St. Michel Station

We just finished installing my ceramic mural, "Tissu urbain" for a new AMT commuter train station in Montreal North. The station won't open until December 2014, so the site is still looking a bit rough. I just wanted to share this sneak peek! The official opening for the artwork likely won't happen until spring of 2015 after landscaping has been finished. 

Fabricated by the amazing team at Mosaika Art & Design, all pieces are hand-made from porcelain clay and hand painted to replicate the fabric texture that I used in my original design. Some pieces have photo transfers but most are created manually, painted on to create the look of fabric. And hence, the title, Urban Fabric: a comment about the many users of this station and the diverse makeup of this community. 

CROISSANCE (Growth): In the Making

At the end of the last "school year" I finished installing an art project at an elementary school in Montreal, École Katimavik-Hébert. The grades ranged from kindergarten to Grade 8. Each student was asked to select a page from their favourite book, either a photo, or text, and these would be integrated into the final artwork. Since a lot of them are quite young, my description of the project seemed to fall on deaf ears. I decided to make a short video for them to watch, explaining the process. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure! 

Version en français ici!:

AMT PROJECT "Tissu Urbain" (AKA: my baby)

Time can fly pretty fast. As a parent, I often gauge time in terms of how old my son is, or what happened ‘pre-child’ vs ‘post-child’.  But in the case of my public art project for a new AMT commuter train station (Montreal-North / St. Michel AMT station), it’s literally the age of my son. I was pregnant with him when I was short-listed, and showed up for the site visit with the artists and architect waddling at 5-months pregnant. I continued to work furiously on the design every time my newborn slept. Then, when he was only 3 months old, I had to present my design concept and maquette to the selection committee.  Sleep deprived or not, never underestimate the competitive drive of a new mom!  I was awarded the commission and now, my son is almost 3 years old and the project is finally done. 

It's on the floor and waiting for an installation date to be set. Hopefully that'll be in the next month, but with construction deadlines, it may have to wait a little longer. I'm only showing details for now... you'll have to wait a little longer for the grand unveiling. 


Last night, my 3-year old found my Achilles heel. Just before it was time for him to go to bed, he started begging and pleading "but I want to DRAW!". Over and over, he asked to draw. How could I refuse? Although the chance was very high he was just trying to avoid bedtime, I still wanted to believe that he might have been overcome with inspiration. Heck, maybe we could pull an all-nighter sometime, drawing, collaging, listening to music.  Ok... so maybe not that far. But if his reason to go to bed later is because he wants to draw, I'll gladly grant him that wish. 

Here he is in front of his first wall painting:

And this is his "edited" version of my design for the MUHC hospital public art project. He continued to glue additional hexagons onto a print-out of the design that he found on my desk. It's pretty good. Maybe next time, I'll consult with him earlier in the design stage. 

MUHC commission unveiled

With the official press launch of all 11 public artworks out of the way, I can finally post images of my design and the work in progress. It's been challenging to be so tight-lipped, but I guess it was good to build suspense! 

This is a photo of my artwork design in the architectural maquette I made for the selection process. To give you a sense of the scale, that little black figure represents a 6-foot tall person. The artwork dimensions will be 25 feet high x 28 feet wide.  The location for my artwork is right at one of the main entrances to the adult hospital wing. 

The work is being fabricated in ceramic, hand-build clay, onyx and mosaic, as well as some image transfers on ceramic. Here are some details of the production at Mosaika Art & Design. Click on image to scroll through.