Arts & Culture

When it comes to public art, everyone’s got an opinion

Public art always stirs up debate. While we know that each LRT station will be home to an installation of some kind, the details have largely been kept under wraps. Before designs are unveiled and residents weigh in on what they love (and hate), we talked with artists, planners, and patrons about what works, what doesn’t, and why

By the end of the year, expect to see an eight-metre-high blue steel sculpture shaped like a giant drop of water in front of the new Bayview LRT station in the Mechanicsville/Hintonburg area. Nearby will be a second, slightly smaller, drop of water, also created by Toronto artist Pierre Poussin. These sculptures honouring the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau rivers are called Cascades. They are among $10 million worth of public art coming to the 13 new LRT stations on the Confederation Line.

Officially, city bureaucrats have refused to answer any questions about the LRT art until they start unveiling designs for stations. However, some details have leaked from city sources and artists. Expect to be wowed by some of Canada’s most celebrated creators, including Vancouver’s Douglas Coupland (the Group of Seven reinterpreted at Parliament Station) and Montreal’s Nadia Myre (Aboriginal-themed sculptures at Pimisi Station in LeBreton Flats).

Ottawa artists include Amy Thompson, Andrew Morrow, and Adrian Gollner; Gollner’s commission for Bayview Station interior involves a 120-metre-long line drawing on steel called As the Crow Flies, echoing the skyline of the Mechanicsville area. The size of Gollner’s art keeps changing as the Bayview design evolves. “It’s the most frustrating public art project I have ever done,” says Gollner. But, he says, in the end it will be rewarding. “The piece uses the motion of the train to create an optical effect, and that should be memorable to passengers.”

Process and transparency aside, what makes for appropriate, memorable public art?

Maureen Korp is an art historian who helped write the city’s public art guidelines in the 1980s. Korp says that “siting and scale” are two of the most important elements. In other words, the dimensions of a piece of public art must be suitable for the size of its location and with regard to the subject matter.

A success, Korp says, is the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in downtown Confederation Park. The creation by Saskatchewan artist Noel Lloyd Pinay is “well located, monumental, and well executed.”

Not far away on Elgin Street are The Valiants — life-sized sculptures of war heroes created by Marlene Hilton Moore and John McEwen of Hillsdale, Ontario. “Too small,” says Korp. Sculptures of people must always be larger than life, she says.

Here, five notable Ottawans choose their favourite work of public art in the capital area.

Photo by
These peregrine falcons by Christopher Griffin are a favourite of art curator Laura Brandon. Photo by David Barbour

• Art curator Laura Brandon on Christopher Griffin’s cement sculptures of peregrine falcons at the Bronson and Riverside overpass, which  present an unnerving image when seen in an urban setting: “They are both strange and familiar at the same time.”

Switch Hitter, a 22-foot-high baseball player, bat raised and awaiting the pitch, is in front of the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton stadium
Switch Hitter, a 22-foot-high baseball player, bat raised and awaiting the pitch, is in front of the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton stadium

Former head of the Community Foundation of Ottawa Barbara McInnes on the Russell Yuristy sculpture Switch Hitter, a 22-foot-high baseball player, bat raised and awaiting the pitch, in front of the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton stadium: “It captures so well the energy and hope of the game.”

• City councillor Catherine McKenney on the Chinatown Arch: “A daily reminder of how fortunate we are for the rich diversity that new Canadians have brought to this neighbourhood.”

Anishinabe Scout, by Jeff Thomas, used to be located, subserviently, at the feet of the Champlain sculpture at Nepean Point. Photo: Howard Adler
Anishinabe Scout, by Jeff Thomas, used to be located, subserviently, at the feet of the Champlain sculpture at Nepean Point. Photo: Howard Adler

• Aboriginal photo-artist Jeff Thomas loves the Hamilton MacCarthy sculpture once known as Anishinabe Scout in Major’s Hill Park: “A warrior standing his ground in front of Parliament Hill.” The piece used to be located at the feet of the Samuel de Champlain sculpture at Nepean Point; in its current location, the First Nations man, renamed Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì Anishinàbe in 2013, is subservient no more.

David Jeanes, Heritage Ottawa president, on the West Coast totem poles in the Canadian Museum of History: “They serve as both decorative art and museum exhibits and are the perfect size for the room’s six-storey-high window wall.”

Returning to Pierre Poussin’s drops of water at Bayview Station. Will they become your favourite? Let’s hope you love them. You paid for them, and you might have to rub shoulders with them every day for years to come.