Toronto's RUNT-naissance
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Toronto’s RUNT-naissance

A new documentary is poised to make the enigmatic Toronto mural artist RUNT as well-known as his style.

A screenshot of Al Runt working on the mural at Electric Mud BBQ in Augusto Monk's new documentary, RUNT

A screenshot of Al Runt working on the mural at Electric Mud BBQ in Augusto Monk’s new documentary, RUNT.

It seems Toronto is in the middle of a RUNT-naissance.

“For a while I felt like a drag of the past, but I don’t feel that way anymore,” the 54-year-old street artist RUNT told Torontoist during a discussion of his latest projects. They include the cover of the 2015 TTC Ride Guide, a special-edition can for Pabst Blue Ribbon, seven to eight commissioned projects from clients at any given time, and now, a new documentary about his life and life’s work, titled RUNT. The increased attention means a lot to the longtime artist: “It’s an amazing boost of confidence.”

Alex Currie, better known by his artistic moniker RUNT or Al Runt, began his art career in Toronto’s underground scene in the early ’80s, drawing posters to hang around the Cameron House and eventually landing the gig to paint the now-iconic mural outside Lee’s Palace. He and his army of neon monsters and rascally creatures amassed a devoted following among musicians and other artists, as the Lee’s mural made the venue one of the city’s most recognizable buildings. Despite his highly visible artistic contributions, things have not always been easy for RUNT; for a good chunk of the new millennium, the art died.

“In 2007, I shovelled snow for the whole winter. I was on welfare, working under the table just doing anything. Definitely living up to the starving artist stereotype.”

The tail end of this period saw Augusto Monk, a musician from Argentina, land in Toronto after living in several cities in the United States. After moving into an apartment across the street from Lee’s Palace, he was a first-hand witness to the mural’s demolition in 2009, as well as to RUNT’s work on the new (and current) edition.

“It had such an impact on me,” he said about the new mural he watched appear on Lee’s Palace. “It reminded me why I wanted to live in Toronto. It puts a smile on my face; it fills me with joy.”

Neither of them knew it at the time, but that mural would cause their paths to cross.

RUNT’s artistic prospects started to look up. Big Fat Burrito hired him to paint its Kensington Market location. “It was more an act of desperation. I really had a sense that I had to put everything into this. Then when I started doing it, I found I really enjoyed it,” he said.

Monk, meanwhile, had turned from music to documentary filmmaking, and last May he decided to make a documentary about creativity. He got in touch with the mysterious painter he knew only from murals across the city, and after a few weeks documenting RUNT’s work on the mural at Electric Mud BBQ in Parkdale, he decided the artist was worthy of his own documentary. Eight months of shooting later, Monk finished RUNT in December, and posted it to Vimeo earlier this month.

In about 90 hours of footage, Monk captures the creation of Electric Mud’s mural and a trip to a cottage where RUNT once lived for a year. The film explores the impact of RUNT’s work with dozens of interviews, including Kensington residents, fans like 3tards singer John Tard, clients such as City Councillor Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence), and art writers like Torontoist contributor Mark Mann. From the visual aesthetics and thematic significance of RUNT’s signature murals, to the role his art has played in Toronto history (one of RUNT’s clients was once apparently offered $10,000 for a piece of the original Lee’s Palace mural—an offer he turned down), RUNT digs into the deeper meaning that underlies RUNT’s artistic approach—something he calls “naivete, with fart jokes.”

Monk draws attention to a common thread running through the praise of RUNT’s work—the movement of the characters. “The composition is something I find masterful. There’s this very unusual aspect in that his works tell a story with a constant atmosphere of cause and affect. The reaction of a character is caused by the action of another one. That really draws me into it.”

Of course, part of the appeal of the hour-long doc lies in hearing arts professionals ponder the merits of RUNT’s work—one even draws comparisons with the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch—as we watch him create Electric Mud BBQ’s mural, which includes several creatures engaging in what RUNT calls “human centipede ass-sucking.” What’s more striking is the realization that these speculations don’t overreach—RUNT’s work transcends gimmickry and nostalgia and is eminently worthy of serious artistic thought. Ultimately, Monk’s documentary makes the case that RUNT is one of this city’s most deserving and under-appreciated local artists.

A screenshot of RUNT’s first sketches on the wall of Electric Mud BBQ in Parkdale. Image by Augusto Monk.

“The most surprising thing was the greatness in the body of his work,” Monk said, citing a 3D woodcut piece. Monk also alludes to the idea that Toronto might take RUNT for granted. “What I do find surprising, also, is that no one else thought of making a film on him. Many people, they see RUNT, and they see Toronto…but the person who ended up making the documentary is not originally from Toronto.”

“Good, it feels good,” RUNT said about the new recognition of his work. “I think it’s pretty awesome to have a doc about you. I could die tomorrow, and that could be the eulogy.”