The making of a street art mural: Interview with Montreal artist Reuben Peter-Finley (photos)

Montreal is known for its cobblestone streets, fine dining and shopping– but the “City of Saints” is also a Mecca for street art.

I was shopping in the funky Plateau neighborhood during a recent girl’s getaway weekend when something caught my eye. A lone artist was painting a massive portrait on the wall of a book store and the locals were hardly batting an eye. Needless to say, I postponed my shopping plans and lunged for my camera.

The artist, Reuben Peter-Finlay, was blending oil sticks with his fingers to create a tribute to French-Canadian activists Gérald Godin and Pauline Julien.

REUBEN PETER FINLEY creating street art mural in Montreal

When I approached Reuben to inquire about his work, he replied, “Can you watch my supplies while I grab a coffee?” and promptly disappeared into a local shop. In a scene straight out of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I stood next to his ladder hoping I wouldn’t have to guard the mural for an hour.

Fortunately, the artist reappeared a few minutes later. The wait was worth it, since he graciously agreed to share his experience as a Montreal street artist with Downtown Traveler readers.

In this email interview, Reuben Peter-Finley explains the meaning of his mural, where to find the best street art in Montreal, and why he never uses a paint brush.

Q+A with street artist Reuben Peter-Finley

REUBEN PETER-FINLEY working on street art mural in Montreal

You mentioned the mural you were working on this weekend features political figures from the 1960s. Who are the subjects of the mural– and what is the message behind this artwork?

I was asked by the owner to paint Gérald Godin and Pauline Julien, a French-Canadian couple who were well-known activists within the ’60s and ’70s separatist movement. Godin was a journalist, a poet and at one point a minister with the provincial Parti Québécois. Julien was a singer and an actress.

I was a little overwhelmed by the number of people who came up to me and made comments on my work as I painted – many local residents of the older generation claimed to have know Julien and Godin, who lived in the neighborhood for most of their lives. An elderly man and former prison guard even recalled searching Julien in October 1970 at the Parthenais Jail, where she and Godin were detained along with 500 other French-Canadians suspected of ties to the FLQ terrorist group.

I guess seeing their faces again brings back memories of the Quiet Revolution for a lot of people passing by.

Godin mural in Montreal by Reuben Peter-Finley

Godin mural in Montreal by Reuben Peter-Finley 3

It seems like street art and graffiti are common throughout Montreal– I spotted several murals in the Plateau area. What are the best places in Montreal to spot street art? Do you think Montrealers appreciate this type of public art?

Statistics Canada states that the Plateau‘s H2 postal codes have the highest concentration of professional artists in the whole country (8%, compared to the 0.8% Canadian average). Plateau residents therefore tend to be very liberal and mural-friendly, although lots of people can’t stand the tagging.

Most don’t know what to think when they see me painting oil portraits with my fingers. I’ve been stopped by cops in broad daylight and gotten away with it by giving them my business card and telling them to call me if anyone reports mischief. Another of my favorite tactics is to claim I’m covering up swastikas.

The alleyways around Saint-Laurent between say, Sherbrooke and Laurier are good places to spot graffiti and will give you a different, more intimate appreciation of the city. There’s also a lot of street-level and rooftop graffiti around the St-Laurent Metro Station and Sainte-Catherine Street. Montreal can be pretty trashy – it’s a wonderful thing.

Godin mural in Montreal by Reuben Peter-Finley 2

Your website features a number of colorful murals. How long have you been creating street murals, and how did you get started?

I started writing my name in high school, but switched from letter-based graffiti to characters a while ago. I used to really enjoy painting monikers (oil stick drawings on freight trains). I’ve also done a little wheatpasting, but in recent years I’ve been a lot less active. I guess I’m getting old.

Most of what you see on my blog is city-funded collaborative projects I’ve done with local kids. The greatest challenge with those is finding ways of involving inexperienced kids in the creative process and technical execution without the end result looking like complete shit. It’s not easy, but it’s fun being a big brother and it usually pays well.

Godin mural in Montreal by Reuben Peter-Finley 4

When we met you were using oil sticks to create the Godin/Julien mural. Many street artists work in aerosol, so I’m curious about your choice. Is there a reason you prefer oils?

I don’t, really. It’s just that the wall was really nice and smooth, which is ideal for fingertip color blending. It seemed like a rare opportunity to do something super big with oil sticks, instead of the usual eye-level train moniker. I’ll use spray-paint whenever the surface’s texture and size make it the most appropriate medium.

One thing I don’t use is a paintbrush. I literally never have, not because that’s something I look down upon, it’s just that I’ve never tried. I would have learned how to had I been to art school, but I went and got a business degree instead. It’s helped me find a job.

Godin mural in Montreal by Reuben Peter-Finley 5

Finishing the mural

Reuben completed the Godin/Julien mural after I returned to New York City. Before finishing, he looked up Julien’s daughter on Google and gave her a call to make sure his portraits were accurate. Following this conversation, Reuben adjusted his portrait of the female activist and reported,

“I’m quite confident now that anyone who ever met the pair and remembers what they looked like will recognize them immediately.”

This feeling was confirmed when an older man who knew both activists stopped to tell Reuben that the portrayals were dead-on. Reuben explained in an email that “[it] matters to me that my work be accurate.”

As a final touch, the artist added a quote from one of Julien’s songs– even going as far as to mimick her handwriting. The lyric reads “te parler de toi– de nous,” which roughly translates, “let’s talk about you, and me.”

About the artist

Reuben Peter-Finley is a street artist and graphic designer based in Montreal. Visit Reuben’s blog for images of his colorful street murals, which range in subject from futuristic landscapes to detailed portraits of historic figures.

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My trip to Montreal was sponsored by Tourisme Montreal. For information on city attractions and events, visit the Tourisme Montreal website and Twitter feed (@VisitMontreal). Click on #MontrealArts to read my other Montreal posts.

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded DowntownTraveler.com after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.