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'Magical and mystical': Downtown project sends artist back to 1960s

'It’s been nice to educate myself and some of the other artists about what (the Fab Trays) are all about,' says Tiffany Szymanski

A downtown art installation is uniting local artists while also bringing back some of the city’s history.

Tiffany Szymanski is one of the 16 Barrie artists selected by the Downtown Barrie BIA who will spent the next month or two designing and painting on large aluminum discs, drawing inspiration from the vintage trays called Fab Trays made in the city in the 1960s and '70s by Hardy Glenwood Products.

The trays used designer fabrics sealed in a clear polyester composition and were carried in fine department stores throughout Canada and the U.S., including Eaton’s, Simpsons, Hudson’s Bay, and Birks. 

The Fab Tray Project, explains Downtown Barrie BIA chair Sarah Jensen, was inspired by a couple of the trays in mother’s collection. 

“I loved the fun and funky patterns and when I realized they were made in Barrie I thought they’d make great inspiration for a public art project. It’s been fun hearing the nostalgic connections people have with the trays, either owning them personally, or recalling family members who have had them. A few of our artists have used inspiration from loved ones in their designs too.”

Jensen, who also serves as the communications and public realm coordinator for the Downtown Barrie BIA, told BarrieToday they have been wanting to improve the alleyway between the CIBC and P_ZZA, to help make it feel safer and more inviting.

“We thought the fab trays would be a fabulous way to do that. We hope they’ll brighten the day of anyone walking past, while paying homage to an interesting part of Barrie’s history,” she said, adding this project is one of several created by the Downtown Barrie BIA in the last year. “Through our Art Builds Communities partnership with Pratt Homes we’ve been able to invest back into the community through these projects, adding colour and character to our city,” she said, adding art not only helps connect people it also helps them connect to their surroundings and encourages people to take ownership of public spaces. “We’ve been selecting projects that are bright, positive, and fun to help create a welcoming atmosphere downtown. We hope they’ll motivate people to explore and discover all the great things downtown has to offer.”

A 24-year-old Barrie native, Szymanski applied to participate in the project after seeing a call for artists on Instagram.

“(Downtown BIA chair) Sarah (Jensen) has been trying for a while now to get something going to do with the history of the Fab Trays and also with public art. I guess they found a way that worked," she said. 

Szymanski picked up her new “canvas” on Jan. 14, and admitted the aluminum disc was actually quite a bit bigger than she thought it would be. While filling it won’t be a challenge, what could be is determining the best kind of paint to use, she said, to ensure it stands up to everything Mother Nature will throw at it once the project is officially installed in the alley beside P_ZZA, located at 50 Dunlop St. E.

“A lot of us have been talking about it and I think the main challenge is going to be choosing materials that will withstand the test of time, particularly because it’s aluminum and it’s going to get really cold in the winter,” she told BarrieToday.

“It’s even different from painting on an exterior wall where there’s heating on the interior of it. A lot of the indoor paint we are used to using is sometimes not rated for that," Szymanski added. 

She said they have been doing research into the preparation of the discs.

"We are going to have to sand down the surface — but not too much because then you lose some of the coating — and then likely use an outdoor primer,” Szymanski explained. “I think we are still on the fence as to if we are going to use exterior wall paint or acrylic.”

As a landscape artist, Szymanski says it’s important for her to capture the calmness of nature in her work, noting she often draws inspiration from Lake Simcoe and the fields nearby.

“That’s why I think it’s nice they’ve chosen different types of artists for this project. There are some who are more into florals, some (whose work) is more magical and mystical, and then there are those of us who are more into landscape or impressionist style," she said. 

In terms of plans for her disc, Szymanski said she’s found photos of old Fab Trays online and has taken her inspiration from two different trays in particular.

“I want to get an almost sunset or dusk kind of sky (over the lake) and bring in lots of flowers to capture the flowers that are in a lot of Fab Trays,” she said, admitting that even though she grew up here, she had no idea about the history of the company until she learned about them through this project. “It’s been nice to educate myself and some of the other artists about what (the Fab Trays) are all about.”

As a relatively new artist — Szymanski only began painting about four years ago — she said she’s excited to be involved in a project that helps promote her hometown’s history, and that will hopefully help promote her fellow local artists as well.

“There’s going to be a permanent piece of art right in downtown Barrie that I am involved in," she said. "I have been seeing other pieces of downtown art coming together (and) a lot of us have been working together and pitching ideas to local businesses for smaller pieces of public art, but this is one that instead of just one or two of us, it’s 16 of us, all with our different styles.

“There’s a lot of artists out there and we are all sort of doing our own thing, but there’s so much benefit to the community with us all working together. People get so much benefit from public art and having art in downtown Barrie makes (the city) feel more modern, more vibrant and more welcoming,"
 Szymanski added. 

"There’s a feeling of change over the last few years. Gone are the days of it just being dark alleys and nothing to do. I think things like this make you want to spend more time downtown.” 

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About the Author: Nikki Cole

Nikki Cole has been a community issues reporter for BarrieToday since February, 2021
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