Public Art 101: Tips, Tricks and Busting Myths

     Hi Everyone, today I'm going to share some of my best tips related to public art. These things will be sure to embolden you and give you a leg up on the competition.

Look for Smaller budgets:  These can be great places to get your foot in the door. Sometimes, the more experienced artists don’t want to bother with the smaller budgets.

Apply as a team: Often they ask for “artist or artist-led team”. This can include architects, landscape architects, other artists, fabricators, etc. With combined experience, your application can be stronger.

MYTH: I can only apply to do public art commissions if I already do work that looks like public artwork.  

FALSE: you only need to show potential to do that kind of work.

TIP: show a translation of one of your previous works in a permanent material, if you don't already work in permanent materials. This can be just a small detail section to save on costs..


Above is an image of one of my ephemeral murals made from sugar tiles (left image) recreated onto ceramic tile.

(For the record, I’ve never done a permanent ceramic mural that looks like my sugar murals, nor do I ever want to. But by showing the selection committee the translation possibilities for materials, it opened up their vision of what I could do.)

MYTH: A jury won’t consider my work because it’s too political (or controversial…)

FALSE: Public art is not a one-size fits all industry. There are many different types of locations with needs for different kinds of art. Plus, your past and current work doesn’t [or shouldn’t, in my opinion] dictate what you do in the future. Committees often choose artists because they like their “approach”. Every committee is different.

As a personal anecdote, I used images of “The Wealth of Some, and Ruin of Others” (seen below) in my original application for the Quebec percent-for-art roster. This ephemeral installation addresses themes about sugar’s historical links to colonization and slavery. While this subject may not be suitable for the majority of percent-for-art programs, my application was still accepted into the roster using these images.


MYTH: If I’m anglophone, or present in English, I’ll never get picked for a project in Quebec.

FALSE: I’m living proof that this isn’t true. However, for any submission or presentation, it’s crucial that you be understood. This applies for any language differences. If a committee speaks a different language than the one you’re fluent in (whether it be french, english, german or swahili), invest in hiring a professional translator. Have your documents translated and consider doing a powerpoint presentation with translation on the screen. Being able to effectively communicate your ideas is key.

MYTH: I’ll never win if I’m competing against really experienced, or senior artists.

FALSE: I always say, the person who wins the commission isn’t the one who’s the “best” artist, so to speak, or the most experienced. Rather it’s the one who proposes the artwork best suited to that location, to that committee, on that day.

    I hope all of this is enough to convince you that the process of applying for public art commissions is more accessible than you may have thought, and that you’re looking forward to the next Public Art 101 where I’ll show you how to apply and give you some details about what happens when you’re shortlisted. If you like my posts and want to see more, come follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. I’m happy to answer all of your comments and questions below!


     This past year myself and landscape architect Eileen Finn were commissioned by the City of Pointe-Claire to build a work of art to be permanently placed in a space along the waterfront of Lac St.-Louis, just next to the Sisters' former residence. We were asked to create a piece that commemorates the significant contribution that the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame made to the community for a period of more than two centuries.

     The Sisters of this religious order primarily chose education as their vocation, so we chose to use books as the main visual element in the artwork, to signify learning and teaching. We felt a strong calling to engage the community in the process of constructing this commemorative sculpture so we asked for book donations from residents of Pointe-Claire to include in the mold for the sculpture. The mold is made to look like the negative of a bookshelf, and when the final sculpture is broken out of it, the texture of the books (especially those with embossed spines) will remain. The concrete that we’re using for this project is LaFarge’s Ductal® which is extremely strong and also made to catch very fine detail, so the imprints of the books will be captured exquisitely.

     In our initial research for this project, we found treasure in the archives of the Congregation of Notre Dame, and chose 12 books from these archives with beautifully illustrated covers that span from the 1800s to the 1970s. We had the covers digitally scanned and the images will be transferred onto porcelain to be inlaid into the concrete sculpture.

     The title of the sculpture, Impression, is a double signifier in that it speaks to the actual impressions that the books will leave in the concrete as well as the metaphorical impression that the Sisters have left on the community and on the young girls they taught during their years of service.

Landscaping features, as well as a bench, a rose bush and a cascade of violet-coloured lilies, will accompany the sculpture to create a welcoming space for people to sit and enjoy the view of the waterfront. The work will be installed in May of 2015 and an official inauguration will take place some time in June.

Here are photos of the mold-making process using the donated books, as well as some interior book images of a few of our favourites.

Public Art 101: What is the Percent for Art Program?

     First, a little background; I have presented maquettes and artwork designs for 10 projects and have been awarded 6. While building up my career as an active artist I spent 6 years working for one of the world's best fabricators for public art, Mosaika Art & Design. Here’s a video of my project, “Croissance (Growth)” being fabricated in their atelier.

    The information I’m sharing here will be related to permanent commissions primarily through “percent for art programs”. In Quebec it’s called the “politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture”. The program is called “Percent for Art” because roughly 1% of the construction budget of a publicly funded structure must be devoted to integrated art or an artwork acquisition. This program applies to new buildings or expansion projects of $150,000 or more, for places deemed as private or commercial buildings. It does not pertain to roads, bridges, viaducs, or parking lots (unless part of a larger complex, like the McGill University Health Centre). Typical locations would be: theatres, museums, libraries, schools, university buildings, health centres, nursing homes, hospitals, sports centres, bus stops, courthouses, etc.
Quebec's program has been around a long time, but this same system exists in many other cities across Canada (like Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, amongst others). They can also be found all across the US. 

How is the percentage for art calculated?

It depends on the cost of the project, and the breakdown for projects in Quebec goes like this:

- $150,000 - $400,000: 1.75% (artwork acquisition between $2, 625 - $7000)

- $400,000 - $2 million: 1.5% ($6,000 to $30,000)

- $2 million - $5 million: $30,000 for first 2 million then 1.25% for remaining ($30,000 - $67,500)

- $5 million and over: $67,500 for first $5 million then .50% for remaining ($67, 500 and over)

    Next time on Public Art 101, I’ll give you some of my best tips and tricks and do some Public Art Mythbusting! I’m looking forward to reading comments and answering your questions below. If you like my content and want to read more, come follow me on Twitter!

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!: