Box art at community garden
One of the three works installed at the Huron Street Community Garden in Guelph’s Ward neighbourhood

A number of outdoor box-art displays have been popping up in Guelph neighbourhoods in front of homes and in a community garden.

Called Open Air Galleries, the displays are about twice the size of a birdhouse and sit atop a post. Each has a Plexiglas window for viewing.

Dr. Karen Houle, a professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Philosophy, is one of the founders of the Guelph branch of the project, which was started and is still run in Toronto by a group called The Open Field Collective.

The Guelph group wanted to make the experience of looking at artwork accessible during the pandemic, given current limited access to galleries in the city.

Yellow box filled with art objects
A work by Dr. Madhur Anand, School of Environmental Sciences

“It’s an easy way for people to have a pleasant visual experience in a safe space,” Houle said. “We also hope they inspire others to do their own creative work whatever that is and consider a way to make that available to the public for free.”

The art occupies neighbourhoods near St. George’s Park and Exhibition Park. There are currently six boxes, with a seventh soon to be installed.

Framed land acknowledgement statement
A land acknowledgement honouring the Indigenous heritage of the land.

The Two Rivers Community Garden on Huron Street has a series of displays focused on environmental themes. They also highlight the land’s Indigenous heritage, including a site-specific land acknowledgment and information on the Indigenous people who inhabited the area. The boxes also point in directions that correspond to the colours of the medicine wheel.

One of the public art creations, The Blue Planet, is stuffed with the ubiquitous blue disposable face masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic. Houle collected more than 200 discarded masks around Guelph and arranged them in the box to evoke ocean waves, with a bird’s nest that incorporates shreds of a medical mask.

A glassed in box containing disposable COVID-19 masks
The Blue Planet, by Prof. Karen Houle.

“The box is meant to spark reflection on the environment and to remind us that whatever we do to keep ourselves safe and to win the war against this terrible virus should not come at the cost of damaging the natural environment,” said Houle.

The art boxes that started the project were displayed a few years ago at the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming on the U of G campus and were intended to honour the Indigenous peoples of this territory who lived on the land and grew food in their own ways, she said.

Portrait of professor wearing black cap
Dr. Karen Houle, Department of Philosophy.

Organizers of the art project encourage Guelph residents to set up open air galleries on their property and consider how they could work with schools, seniors’ homes or other groups in their neighbourhoods to “curate” a series of upcoming shows.

The Guelph Coalition for Active Transportation is considering making a map of these galleries that riders can use on a self-directed art tour.


Dr. Karen Houle