Artspeak

8 May 2022 – “Artspeak” is the term that I (and some equally snippy friends) use to disparage gallery signage we consider unduly precious about the art they are describing.

This Japanese camellia blossom, recently dropped into this bronze hand, made me think about that term another way ’round.

Restore ‘speak’ to verb form, I say to myself: the power of art to communicate with the viewer.

More specifically, the power of some public art pieces to speak so powerfully to passers-by — everyday, you-and-me passers-by — that they become part of their community, adopted by that community, beloved.

My mind jumps a few kilometres east to my own neighbourhood park, officially Guelph Park, unofficially and pervasively Dude Chilling Park. Because of this bronze statue by Michael Dennis…

officially Reclining Figure, but unofficially The Dude who — just look at him — is chilling. We chill with him. We hang with him from our favourite park bench…

and we cuddle up to him with our picnic lunches.

The fact I enjoy seeing this kind of familiarity is… extraordinary. I respect art work! It is art, dammit, so admire with your eyes and keep your hands (and other bodily bits) safely out of range! And yet…

With the onset of the pandemic, The Dude became not only beloved, but comforting. The park was a safe place to visit, everybody carefully distanced, and, for the first time, I saw people sit on the plinth, creep into the Dude’s embrace. He is now regularly visited this way. He has never been vandalized.

Very similar story for another bronze sculpture, this one by Henry Moore: Large Two Forms, which for a very long time sat by the sidewalk at the north-east corner of the Art Gallery of Ontario, owner of the sculpture (and much more by Moore as well). Not fenced off, fully accessible, right there by a street car stop. Torontonians have a history of loving works by Henry Moore — this one more physically than the rest. Of course it featured in endless selfies! And of course people sat in its convenient curves, or boosted their children to slide through those curves, while waiting for a street car!

I took this photo in 2015, when the statue had already become seriously weathered — except for that bright patch in the middle, constantly burnished by hands and backsides.

More recently, the AGO has had the statue restored and moved into the equally refurbished (and public) Grange Park to the south of the art gallery. A recent AGO communiqué shows it sparkling bright — but, apparently, still accessible to loving hands.

Back to that camellia, dropped into a local bronze hand, right here at Main and East 24th.

The blossom caught my eye, as I walked past. How could it not?

A child offering a flower to a fire fighter… I read the plaque, later go online. This statue honours the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund, a charitable organization that does exactly what the name suggests — offers help to burn victims. My guess is that the flower is a very personal tribute, to one instance of that help and the difference it has made in someone’s life.

Statues and floral tributes. My mind jumps years and continents to land in Havana, Cuba, in 2009. I’m revisiting Habana Vieja to write a story for Outpost about the places that my habanero friends love best in their city. One example: the Plaza de San Francisco in general, and this bronze statue in particular.

This is sculptor José Villa’s representation of a much loved local street person, nicknamed El Caballero de París for his insistence (unlikely) that he came of aristocratic French origins. One friend remembered him, still a familiar figure in her childhood: “He was a love! He refused to go into an institution, so everybody fed him and looked after him.” She then sang for me a local ballad, composed in his honour, about the way he greeted his community: “… con una flor tan linda para tí / y un saludo para mí.”

The pretty flowers are now being offered to him, not by him, and on a regular basis. I just happen to pass by when the offering is an Ostrich Plume (aka Red Ginger, or Alpinia purpurata, and thank you to my generous Master Gardener friend, who identified it for me).

I remember lingering across the street, watching the community greet their Caballero. Again and again, passers-by of all ages slowed for a moment, trailed their fingers across his hand or stroked his beard.

Or even…

threw their toddler arms around his legs.

Art that speaks.

Walk, Talk, Rock… B.C.-style

31 August — Just back from a six-day escape to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, visiting much-loved family and friends in an area that always uplifts me.

I say “much-loved” for many reasons, but after all these decades recognize that one of them is the resonance added by sheer passage of time. Part of the worth is in the while — a concept I borrow from John Fowles, who first deconstructed “worthwhile” this way in his 1964 book of personal philosophy, The Aristos.

Count back on your fingers and, yes, I posted “King, Queen and Moose” not from Toronto, but from the home of my friends Sally and Owen in North Vancouver. I sat there at Sal’s laptop, looking out over their back yard to the fence dividing it from the trees and shrubs of Mount Seymour Provincial Park immediately beyond.

The shrubs include blackberry bushes, up against the fence. Which means ripening blackberries are more than a sign of changing seasons, they signal potential danger. Black bears love blackberries, and literally turn gate-crasher on occasion, once they’re that close to residential properties with other potential sources of food.

(Sally once emailed me the photo of a black bear foraging in their yard. All I could send in return was a raccoon sleeping in my birdbath.)

Of course the visit included some hiking about! You can’t be in British Columbia, halfway up a mountain, and not go walking. First target, Old Buck Trail, which sets off halfway up Mount Seymour Road. Various other trails split off, such as this Empress Bypass option, but I stuck with the main trail.

I hadn’t brought my pedometer, and settled for a 90-minute outing instead right on Old Buck itself. First I went up (and in these mountain ranges, up is up), awe-struck by the huge stumps of long-ago trees. Yes, I’ve seen them before, but they never fail to move me.

Somewhere beyond here, short of the Baden Powell junction but not by much, I turned about.

At least as high as I went, the trail was much like this — a smooth, clear dirt path.

Just as the ancient stumps move me, so do the great columns of contemporary tall trees. The path moves gently among them, and I think a bit about paths, and making one’s path (thank you, Antonio Machado), physically and otherwise.

I remember, too, that tai chi is sometimes described as “walking meditation.” I don’t specifically meditate when I walk, but I do usually feel myself expanding out into my surroundings, somehow.

Then, sometimes, the elegant columns of trees give way to great bursts of nature’s very own mixed media: rock and moss and other layered vegetation and spikey remnants of old logs and forest, forest, forest.

But no, I don’t spend the whole six days in the woods.

Soon I’m deserting this far corner of North Van for a visit to Vancouver proper — across Burrard Inlet by Seabus, then south on the Canada Line (built for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics), and out onto Cambie St. at Broadway. Where I grabbed this shot northward up Cambie, sightlines back to North Vancouver and the framing mountains beyond.

Mountains and ocean, Vancouver is the Rio of the north.

But even here, walking with my friends Louise and Rolf through residential streets over to Main Street and then south… even in this dense bit of cityscape, there’s still great exuberant nature. (When I lived in Calgary, a semi-desert climate, and came visiting, the sheer humid profligacy of Vancouver’s nature always smacked me in the eye and up the nose.)

My friends waited cheerfully while I eyed the detail of growth on city trees. Like this one.

We had lunch one place, lattes somewhere else, prowled shops with strong design sense… and finally good-bye and back north I went, retracing my way via the Canada Line to the Seabus again. Where I was charmed by these little girls, their noses pressed against the ferry’s front window, party balloons to one side.

Another walk, still in North Van and on Mount Seymour, but setting out from the little community of Deep Cove.

 That’s Sally’s back, in an early stretch of our chosen hike, up the Baden Powell Trail to the Deep Cove Lookout. The lookout is aka Quarry Rock — indeed a succession of big old rocks, but no sign anywhere of past let alone present quarrying. So, go figure.

Sal characterized this as an up-and-down trail, probably an hour each way. The footing was at times smooth and the path gently curving, but in other places the path twisted narrowly among trees and boulders, intensely scored with tree roots and rocks.

It was also much less solitary than my Old Buck outing! Then again, a weekend morning vs weekday. More people than we really wanted — oh, the cherished illusion of being alone in nature — but at least everybody observed pretty good trail etiquette.

Even the dogs behaved themselves. Including a snowy white little pooch who clearly had been having a wonderful time in mucky streams. Her owner observed her four black legs, and quipped, “Her name is Emma, but we may have to call her Boots.”

Finally there we were on Quarry Rock, looking over the Indian Arm inlet of the ocean, with the village of Deep Cove itself hidden away to the right.

Going back down, I lost track for a moment. So many ups and downs enroute… where we really descending? Yes, we were. Sometimes on the twisty paths I described above, sometimes on stairways pressed against rock faces, like this.

Yah, finally, indeed down and walking along the Deep Cove beach, with all the boats bobbing in the water and great red and yellow blocks of kayaks set out, waiting their turn for some action.

We consider hanging around for Deep Cove Daze [sic], but resist.

It’s going to be all the usual late-summer, small-community mix of booths and games and noise and T-shirts and organizations with their  tables… and it is tempting… but we have other plans.

Which involve lunch on a patio elsewhere, so it’s easy to leave. But not before paying tribute to this metric flower bed!

One last walk, days later and down in the Lower Mainland where I’ve joined family for the final few days of my trip. Karen and I head out to Watershed Park in Surrey, one that she and husband Tim know well, both on foot and on their bikes.

I’m luxuriating all over again in the sights and smells and texture underfoot of these west-coast trails. Some of the scenes are the sort of thing I anticipate…

But some are not!

At first I tut-tutted, a graffito in such a setting. Then I realized I rather liked the face — just a bit Picasso-esque, don’t you think? And also realized it is if anything an improvement on the concrete ruin it adorns.

This last photo takes us back to West Coast Classic, and is a bit of a cheat. Well, only in time, not in place.

I took this photo of a “nurse log” right here in Watershed Park, but some years ago. Karen had explained the phenomenon to me, that of an old rotting log nurturing new life, and I remember being so happy to find such a good example of it.

And now I’m home. Posting this from Toronto, and planning my next walk right here…

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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