About 5 years ago, I briefly stayed in Montreal for a program to learn French. The entire course was filled with people from across Canada. By and large, it was unsuccessful as we were much more interested in Montreal and the various intoxicating substances we could ingest in the city, but I do remember one instance where we went to Old Montreal. My group were excited, I wasn’t as much, and they tried to convince me one of the great things I could see was cobblestone streets. As someone who lived in Scotland for a year, I can tell you this: cobblestone streets are annoying. They’re uneven, almost always poorly maintained, and they’re just a pain to walk on. Old Montreal was filled with cobblestone streets, but thankfully there was a lot more interesting things to do than wait to roll my ankle.
But I think if Stephane Jaspert had been in Montreal before I arrived, I would’ve been psyched to see cobblestone streets for the first and only time in my life. You see, Jaspert makes these uneven ancient streets interesting by doing something most cities refuse to do: replacing the stones.
Stephane Jaspert takes old pieces of cobblestone and repaints them with pictures of anything from iPad screens to blocks of Swiss cheese. These replacement stones turn old, dilapidated streets into something interesting again, less an obstacle and more a hunt for something new to experience. And while history buffs and my friends heading to Old Montreal may see this as some kind of desecration, I see it as making the most of a bad situation. Jaspert’s cobblestones encourage you to walk the streets, to take in the town as you hunt for small, almost throwaway art hidden in the cobblestone streets.
The project started in 1999 when Jaspert, already with a decade of professional artistry behind him, decided to start painting cobblestones. He made contacts at the local public works department and soon after set about painting the stones and replacing old ones. In general, he starts working on the pieces without a clear idea of what he’ll do, taking in the shape and size of each stone to see what he can make. He then uses gouache or tempera that is sealed with an oil varnish spray, giving the pieces an extended life. After all, they’ll probably have cars and people walking all over them. Depending on the piece, Jaspert will use just one side, as is the case in his iPad screen or recreation of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or more sides, like his piece that resembles a very thick encyclopedia.
To date, photos of nearly 200 of Jaspert’s cobblestones exist, which may or may not represent his output in the 15 years he’s dedicated to the project. According to him, he’s found his life’s work and plans on painting cobblestones “until my death.” The potential does seem nearly limitless, and it certainly makes for an interesting and mobile experience for the audience. Hopefully, he’ll keep leaving little treasures for people for years to come.