Public Artwork

Four Sisters

John Armstrong & Paul Collins, Four Sisters, 2008
John Armstrong & Paul Collins, Four Sisters, 2008
John Armstrong & Paul Collins, Four Sisters, 2008
John Armstrong & Paul Collins, Four Sisters, 2008
686 Bay Street, Toronto, ON, Canada
Artwork creator(s): 
Armstrong, John; Collins, Paul
Text author(s): 
Armstrong, John; Collins, Paul
Installation year: 
Remarks on location: 

Parking lot at the intersection of Bay and Elm Streets. Site A5 on the map of the event.


Four Sisters is a silent, 30-minute video sequence shot on Toronto's waterfront Gardiner Expressway during a late afternoon rush-hour commute, from East to West. The Gardiner, an elevated highway crossing much of the city, is flanked by a plethora of billboards and other signage. The video also documents a construction boom on redeveloped railway lands that parallel the highway. Near the end of the video, the Gardiner returns to ground level and a series of roadside topiary gardens depicting corporate logos and brand names come into view. Beneath the video is a running band of text that recounts 11 short, anecdotal narratives in either English or French.

Text of the artwork: 

[Narration 1/11] —

John, who has a penchant for institutional, self-service food, was excited about trying out the new cafeteria at Ikea. We were driving West along the Gardiner Expressway, the lake was on our left, occasionally visible between the Victorian fairground pavilions. Further along, on the right, we passed a series of topiary gardens where the shrubbery depicts various corporate logos and brand names: HP, Westinghouse, Sears, Deloitte & Touche, FedEx, Manulife Financial, Parmalat, Rogers, CGI, Weber, Waterhouse, CN, United Way, Ford, and the City of Toronto. As we drew parallel to the four towering chimneys of the Lakeview Generating Station, John suggested that we should call our new collaborative project “Lakeshore.” I readily agreed, but had great difficulty believing that we were actually going to Ikea to eat.

[one of eleven stories] —

There was a time when a person could make a respectable living by creating handlettered signage with nothing more sophisticated than a decent lettering brush and a pot of paint. A good signpainter was trained in proportion, scale and detail, understood the origins of typefaces, and had a penchant for experimentation. The trade also attracted other, less assiduous folk, who used it simply as a way to earn some quick cash and then crawl away inside a bottle. You could earn a surprising fee for just several hours’ work. Those of us who thought of ourselves as professionals would speculate on the identity of our fly-by-night competitors whose work was always a shaky, garish mess. Their lettering typically advertised a greasy-spoon restaurant or a discount yard-goods retailer — the proprietors of which presumably didn’t know or care that signpainters, who could have done a real job of it, existed. One such mystery artist we called the Phantom. His work was everywhere. The advent of computer-driven, polyvinyl letter-cutting machines in the ‘80s reduced the trade to a shambles. You no longer came across the Phantom’s work, or anybody else’s who had even a passing acquaintance with the systematic pleasure of twisting a letter out of a brush. What you saw instead was a digital smear of plastic, reams of bad layout and grating colour schemes seemingly shot out of a cannon by dolts who apparently knew how to stack enough dollars in a pile to buy the computer rig but didn’t understand the nature of the graphic travesty they unfurled in the public’s eye. Twenty-five years later, the signmaking business has tamed its machinery and discovered the secrets of composition and balance. Since most everything is plastic, vinyl lettering seamlessly blends in. Handlettering even rears its noble head occasionally when good taste prevails and budgets are extended. Just yesterday I caught myself gladdened to see the front window of a down-market eatery only recently lettered by someone with no ability.

[one of eleven stories] —

After finishing art college, I worked with Cliff for about a year in his West Toronto sign shop. The business was located on the ground level of a renovated warehouse, and Cliff’s unit had a large storefront window that faced out onto a quiet street of other light-industrial concerns. The candymaker Rowntree was just down the road from us. The sweet smell of chocolate frequently hung in the air. Business was intermittent. It was the early ‘80s and there was a recession. The computer-generated vinyl lettering that would soon replace the handpainted signage that Cliff specialized in was still a few years off, and on occasion we did get large jobs: showcards announcing seminars at dental conferences, outdoor signs advertising new residential developments, showpiece wooden signs for upscale restaurants. Often this work was last minute, and we would paint late into the night. Invariably, when this occurred we would get a call from a sexual prankster. He would dryly relate to us in great detail how terrific it was to masturbate while listening to the sound of our voices. Whenever I picked up the phone to find him on the other end, I would immediately slam down the receiver. This was an involuntary reaction, and may well have been exactly what the caller was looking for. Cliff, on the other hand, would switch the caller onto speakerphone, and engage him for some time by sarcastically playing along.


1. History: created in 2007. Presented in a gallery. Event: Logo Cities: An International Symposium on Signage, Branding, and Lettering in Public Space, Concordia University, Montreal, QC Dates: May 4-5, 2007


2. Background: In cooperation with the Consulate General of France in Toronto. First exhibition of the work in a public space. Event: Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Toronto, ON Date: night of October 4, 2008


3. Event: Four Sisters, Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, ON Date: October 10, 2008


4. Event: Evening performance, École Supérieure d'Art de Toulon, Provence méditerranéenne, Toulon, France Date: December 10, 2008

Event date(s): 

Painting in public. An illustrated overview of collective and individual work

Armstrong, John, Paul Collins (2008).  Painting in public. An illustrated overview of collective and individual work. <> : Logo Cities

Nuit blanche: Toronto en veille

Chatar, Khadija (2008).  Nuit blanche: Toronto en veille. <>L'Express. 30 sept - 6 oct

Bulletin culturel

Consulat_général (2008).  Bulletin culturel. <>Octobre : Consulat général de France à Toronto

Archive. Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2008

Scotiabank_NuitBlanche (2008).  Archive. Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2008. <> : ScotiaBank NuitBlanche

Night watch: three years in, Nuit Blanche has grown into a 155-site beast. Five spectacles worth fighting the crowds for.(ART)

[Anonymous] (2008).  Night watch: three years in, Nuit Blanche has grown into a 155-site beast. Five spectacles worth fighting the crowds for.(ART). Toronto Life. vol. 42, no. 10, p. 49