TORONTO – Robert Young is showing that Toronto is a fitting city to host the Pan Am Games, showcasing the diversity of the entire hemisphere along the shore of Lake Ontario.
The Toronto-born Young has been able to find women living in Toronto with roots in each of the 41 nations or territories participating in the games. He painted their faces in the colors of their native flags, photographed them and put their stunning images on tall panels arranged in a Stonehenge-like ring that's the center of an exhibition in the city's downtown.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Carla Olivier, who works at a nearby hotel and stumbled across the exhibition on Friday. "I love it. This is taking face-painting to a different level."
Olivier might be a typical Torontonian. She was born in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean but has lived in Toronto for 30 years.
Vivienne Bryan was a few steps away looking at the Jamaican display. She came to the city 25 years ago from Jamaica and said she was "so proud" to learn that Young — who calls himself a "visual content creator" — is the son of Jamaican immigrants.
"To be honest, I'm amazed when I see this," she said.
That summed up the reaction as a few hundred people cut across the circular display, posed for photos and milled around, or congratulated Young for capturing Toronto's diversity, which could only be matched by much larger cities like London or New York.
"Toronto has the opportunity to showcase what a world would look like in one place," said Young, who returned to his native city earlier this year after living away for a few decades.
He said the commission by games organizers to do the project called "Young World Faces of Pan Am" allowed him to get to know his city of birth.
Canada's largest city will show off its diversity throughout the 17-day games, which end July 26.
According to city hall data from 2011, approximately half of Toronto's population was born outside Canada, and 45 percent of residents have a mother tongue other than English or French. One third of its immigrants have arrived in the city in the last 10 years, and more than 200 "distinct ethnic origins" were identified in one study.
Young said he found his subjects largely through word of mouth. Very few had worked as models, but many had worked as dancers of performers and all called Toronto home when he shot the photos earlier this year.
"Each time I chose someone I would ask them who else they knew," Young explained.
He said the most difficult to find was a representative of the South American country of Surinam, who was recommended by his Argentine subject.
"I told her she had to come in — there is only one of you," he said.
Surprisingly, he said finding a representative from Canada was a challenge almost as tough as Surinam.
"With Canada, I wanted to find someone who went back three or four generations," he said.
Young said he tried to find candidates whose faces matched their flags, and he said he had to train the women not to smile — which focused all the attention on the piercing eyes of every subject.
"I would study the angles in a particular flag, whether there were stars, whether it was horizontal, whether it was vertical," Young said. "I'd study the flag to see how it matched and combined with the person's face."
Young, who said he is one-quarter Chinese, said the project taught him about Toronto, and prompted his subjects to learn more about their families and their immigrant histories.
"Some knew a lot," he said. "Some used it as an opportunity to know more."
He said he plans to do a similar project for the entire world, finding all the subjects in Toronto. The scale will be larger, but the intrigue will be the same.
"People are fascinated with color, and they are fascinated with where they are from," Young said. "People are also fascinated looking into people's eyes because most of the time they are scared to do it. Here's an opportunity to do it and learn about the world at the same time."
Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP