Art Battle’s Paint the Halls: From Empty Hospital to One Night Gallery

The rooms and halls of Toronto’s Women’s College hospital have been cleared of beds, rows of waiting room chairs, IVs, medical equipment, machinery and, of course, patients. Tomorrow night, the walls of the landmark Toronto hospital will transform into one of the most vibrant galleries of art in the city – at least for a few hours – before the original WCH location closes its doors to the public forever. We first told you about the live competitive painting event that is Art Battle last year after attending the national finals in Toronto. Tomorrow, Paint the Halls marks the biggest Art Battle event ever. 

In front of some 1000-plus guests, 75 artists will transform the hospital walls into works of art in a massive live painting competition where, in typical Art Battle fashion, the guests are the judges. Not only does the evening mark a chance to take in large-scale local art, but it also offers an opportunity to party in the hospital. Art Battle is the brainchild of Toronto natives Simon Plashkes and Christopher Pemberton, who started the event on modest means in Toronto in 2009. It has since become a coast-to-coast affair, with Art Battle events now in Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. Yesterday, Plashkes lead the crowd on a tour of the space before sitting down with us for a few minutes to chat about Art Battle and what we can expect tomorrow night. 

Art Battle

What was the inspiration behind Art Battle?
My friend Chris Pemberton and I started Art Battle in 2009, and it was an idea that came from him and I hanging out and thinking that there must be something great to do with the beautiful artistic communities in the city – and something not just for artists. We wanted to engage a larger audience, not just professional artists. There are a lot of artist collectives that get together and create together, but very few things for people who may not be professional artists but who have a love of or interest in art. The idea was to bring people together with the artists to see inside the artistic process and to involve them in a process of democracy in voting for the paintings. 

Were the two of you artists yourselves?
Chris has been a professional artist for some time now, but we have both been active in Toronto’s arts community for years. My background is in tech, entrepreneurship and advertising, so I wouldn’t stay I am a professional artist by any means. I have been involved in a lot of installation and interactive art around the city, as has Chris.  

You recently launched Art Battle events coast-to-coast. What has been the most memorable experience from attending the events across the country?
The first Art Battle in Halifax in January of this year was incredible – it was a real rush for us. In every other Art Battle in other cities, we were involved in the entire process; the set up details, tickets, acquiring of people and whatnot. We had such a great team in Halifax that we showed up there and had everything done for us. It was very surreal for us to have someone else get it and essentially throw an event that we were attending as guests after doing it for four years ourselves. The people in Halifax love Art Battle, from the overall energy and the volume of the roar of the welcoming of artists to the careful balance in the voting process. It was so apparent. The vibe at the party in Halifax was the best yet and the energy at the after party was amazing. I hadn’t been on the East Coast for so long. It’s a family affair when you go some place like Halifax. 


Do you find that each city has its own distinctive character in their Art Battle events?
Oh, absolutely! It’s weird. You give the same instructions at each event across the country, but it is very different in each city. Montreal, for example, is kind of cool, observant, very artistically minded and focused on the artistry of it and the experience. In Ottawa, they are so excited to be engaged in this interactive, participatory process because there isn’t much of that out there. So you get somebody who draws something recognizable in Ottawa and people say, “Wow, I know what that is – that’s amazing.” In Montreal, there is more abstract artistry. Vancouver has its own vibe….people show up later and the party lasts longer. Our favourite is in Toronto because the community of Art Battle lovers is so big and includes people who have been following it from Art Battle #1 to #45, and even make references to paintings of past Art Battles. 

Who can get involved as an artist at future Art Battle events? Do you have to be an experienced artist?
Anyone can submit and register online and apply. You don’t have to be a “professional” artist per se, but we do evaluate the work beforehand and have a submission process. We encourage people to register online, and maybe register again if they don’t hear anything. The key thing to do is to try a 20-minute painting – the typical time limit at Art Battle events. See what you can do in 20 minutes and attach a note that says, “Hey I wrote this in 20 minutes.” We have huge respect for that and try to make the event as inclusive as possible.


How did the idea/concept for Paint the Halls come to fruition?
The staff at Women’s College Foundation are fans of Art Battle and they had a separate idea of creating an art-themed event to say goodbye to the hospital and capture its essence through art. They approached us and here we are, with a massive Art Battle costumed to Women’s College Hospital and all of its core values. 

What can guests expect from Paint the Halls?
Guests will be torn by not being able to see all the action – you will have to choose, you can’t really take it all in. They will have to decide what is important; what painter, what room and what themes. Each artist has a huge 6×6-foot mural, which will go from zero to complete…so expect a difficult decision in voting for your favourite painting. When the paintings are done, you only have 45 minutes to decide. The main point is that WCH is a gallery for one night only. Once everyone walks out at midnight, the public will never see the paintings in person because the hospital will close its doors. Next week the demo of the building begins. 

What’s next for Art Battle after Paint the Halls?
The next is the Art Battle Toronto Finals on June 22nd, where all the artists who competed in Toronto throughout the year compete. And we just found this out: we’ve signed an agreement with the Art Gallery of Ontario Painters for the Art Battle National Championships, where artists from Halifax to Vancouver will travel to Toronto to compete on Friday, July 26th. It will be produced in association with the AGO and take place on-site.