The Art of Navigation

9 October 2021 – More precisely: the art of using public art for personal navigation.

I’m just off my bus at the main transit hub on UBC campus, and all pleased with myself because (a) I am wearing a bright water-resistant jacket suitable for the misty day, and (b) I know exactly where I am going.

My clever little brain instructs my feet: Go there-there-there, and then I’ll be on University Blvd. and after that it’s just turn right when I reach West Mall, and after that hop across the road to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

So feet go there-there-there as instructed, and … ooops. Neither clever little brain, nor obedient feet, nor any bit of me in between, is now on University Blvd. Or anywhere else I recognize.

Brain meekly asks feet to take over. Feet dance another there-there-there, following some algorithm of their own inaccessible to the brain, and …

And here we are, from feet to brain and every bit in between, here we all are on University Blvd. The University posts helpful sign-maps at all the major intersections, but the campus is also dotted with public art and I find it much more rewarding to navigate with the art.

Brent Sparrow Jr’s Double-Headed Serpent Post, for example, here at the intersection with East Mall.

I border the serpent as I climb on up University Blvd, enjoying the gleam and the prickles of raindrops in the watercourse as I go.

Martha Piper Plaza, honouring the former UBC president and vice-chancellor, marks the intersection with Main Mall. The dancing fountains are not dancing, now that it’s fall, but the rain drops are definitely dropping, for the same reason.

Just across the way, my next two navigation aids. Your eye has surely already snagged on the bright yellow one, back right corner of the above photo? Now pull your focus a little more central, yes, there, to that brown triangular structure.

That’s it. And don’t I wish I could name it for you, but I can’t find signage anywhere. I circle it two-three times, not just in the interest of artist credit, but also because I really like the design.

And then I move on.

West Mall lies straight ahead, and I already know it has some kind of bright yellow artwork to mark the spot.

Very bright, very yellow, and it even has signage: Cumbria, by Robert Murray. Again I circle around, no artist mystery to solve here, just the pleasure of viewing from all angles.

Just out of frame, a student with a pile of luggage grows steadily more anxious as he awaits some promised ride that must by now be long overdue. I feel slightly callous as I step around him to admire the geometric dance between Cumbria‘s strong angles and the equally strong (and colourful) verticals of the Audain Art Centre behind it.

Good-bye University Blvd! Right turn onto West Mall and then straight on — or so my clever little brain intends — to the MOA. Except that, there at the corner of Crescent Rd., I see a sign pointing to the Belkin Art Gallery. It says, “Open.”

Sod the MOA! says my clever little brain; on to the Belkin! My feet smartly right-turn onto Crescent Rd.

I don’t remember ever visiting this Gallery, but I do remember this piece of art at the entrance: Myfanwy MacLeod’s Wood for the People. The descriptions I read about it are full of the kind of artspeak that makes me cranky, so I’m going to ignore them. I’ll just say: whatever its larger objectives as socio/eco/political commentary, this piece also perfectly depicts the way people stack a woodpile. My mind flips back to an autumn visit to Fernie, BC, a few years ago, with stack after stack next to one home after another, ready for the coming winter.

Thoughts of Fernie still in my mind, I enter the Belkin.

Where I meet Dark Matter, and Sudbury’s SNOLAB, instead.

I drift with the art …

and I emerge again into the Gallery’s own firm angles of light and space.

Back outside. The rain is now bucketing down. My merely water-resistant jacket proves more protective than I have any right to expect.

Brain, feet and all the bits in between arrive back home perfectly happy with the day.

The Balancing Act

1 October 2021 – Balance. That’s our daily context, isn’t it? Leonard Cohen pointed this out back in 1966, when (in Beautiful Losers) he praised those who achieve “balance in the chaos of existence.” But never mind grand philosophical abstractions, just consider the balancing act involved in putting one foot in front of the other. Some 6-3 million years ago our ancestors decided to get up off all fours and walk upright. We’ve been dancing with gravity ever since. (And our backs, so beautifully shaped for horizontal life, have been complaining ever since.)

I must add that absolutely none of this is in my mind as we stand at Denman & Davie streets, just off English Bay. We are entirely focused on the building in front of us, with its display of Douglas Coupland’s latest contribution to his home town.

Berkley Tower is being comprehensively renovated, all 16 storeys of it, and author/artist Coupland was commissioned to create the murals now being applied to all four sides. They’re bright & sassy & up-energy and we decide we like them. They hold their own, we agree, in an area already rich with public art — new Mural Festival additions all around, and the A-maze-ing Laughter collection of Vancouver Biennale sculptures right across the street in Morton Park.

The Coupland work gave us a starting point for our walk; now we’ll wing it, as we head east along the False Creek north shore Seawall, from English Bay Beach on past Sunset Beach near the Burrard Bridge, and on down to Granville.

There’s been lots of rain lately; we’re both wearing Seriously Waterproof jackets. With hoods. Without umbrellas. (Vancouverites tend to divide on the subject of umbrellas, pro/con.) No rain at the moment, just mist dancing in the air, creating a depth of mystery and potential beyond anything blatant sunshine can offer.

On we walk, now just east of the giant Inukshuk monument whose setting curves into English Bay right at the end of Bidwell Street. “Here,” says my friend, sweeping an arm to pull my attention forward. “Look.”

I look, I blink. How have I never noticed all this before?

More inukshuks, all of them unofficial, uncommissioned, but look at them. One after another, more sizes & shapes (& quantity) than the eye can register.

Later, hunting around online, trying to find names to credit for all this beauty, I discover they are examples of a global phenomenon known variously as rock balancing or rock stacking. I’m happy to adopt this language: these creations certainly are feats of balance, and they are not truly inukshuks, which tend to have humanoid structure. (I never do find current names of local rock balancers, alas, so cannot give the credit so richly due.)

We keep hanging over the Seawall, admiring one subset of rock stacks after another.

Sometimes imposing towers …

sometimes just a few tiny pieces, in perfect relation to each other.

By the time we reach Sunset Beach, the great sweep of rock stacks has finally ended. But look… there is compensation.

One of my enduring favourites of all the Vancouver Biennale sculptures: 217.5 Arc X 13. Bernar Venet’s work is exactly what its title promises — 13 arcs of steel, each curved to 217.5°. (It’s not a balancing act in the sense of the stone stacks we have just been admiring, but it does still have to contend with the laws of gravity…)

Close to the Burrard St. Bridge, we cock our heads at the astoundingly large, perfectly vertical cones poised like chandeliers on the branches of this enormous evergreen.

And then later, under the Granville St. Bridge, we see an even more improbable chandelier.

“And… why???” you ask. I can tell you it’s 7.7 m X 4.2 m of stainless steel, bedecked with polyurethene “crystals” and weighing more than 3,000 kilos, and you’ll wave away all those factoids, won’t you. You’ll ask again: “Why???”

Here’s why. Vancouver bylaws require that the developers of any building over 100,000 sq. ft. must contribute some piece of public art to the City. The developers of Vancouver House were simply meeting a legal obligation.

But they did it with panache, didn’t they? So I’m willing to be grateful.

On the Other Hand (take 2)

(What you should have received)

28 September 2021 – On the other hand, we live in a both/and world.

Both the realities lamented by Yeats

and other realities as well.

Realities in the Camosun Bog, for example, where three perfect fungi climb the tree trunk immediately behind your boardwalk bench …

and the bog itself spreads wide before your eyes, a whole ecosystem, quietly breathing.

Or realities in Dude Chilling Park, where the natural ecosystem welcomes a continuing succession of social ecosystems, each one its own celebration of connection and community.

This drizzly evening, dozens of geocachers have gathered (fully compliant with BC virus regulations) to share stories, trinkets and know-how. I don’t know how and I’m not even trying to learn how, I’m just along for the ride, but all around me veterans and newbies are deep in conversation about their hobby, with its twin attractions of high tech and boots-on-ground.

Then the shout goes up: “Group photo, everybody!” People pile in under some sheltering tree branches, with one late arrival (over there on the right) doing a bum-plant in her haste.

Nobody has just one interest in life, and so this gathering is shot through with the textures of sub-gatherings, as people discover what else they have in common.

I am shown some painted rocks, newly tucked into the boundary of the adjacent community garden, and learn something of the back-story.

They have become a birthday symbol for the young boy who helped paint this latest crop, because one year ago, when COVID lock-down prevented any birthday party, his friends each painted a rock and placed it in front of his house, for him to admire from the required distance.

And I am introduced to Deirdre Pinnock, whose name means exactly nothing at all to me — but whose work I know and have on occasion shared with you. She’s our resident Yarn Artist! The person who adorns chain-link fences with crocheted hearts and other symbols of love, support and community.

I gaze at her in awe, and then tug her hand like an eager puppy dog. “Let me take your picture,” I beg. “Choose one of your works here in the park. Whichever.” She chooses the pole.

I walk back home significantly more cheerful than I was a couple of days ago. I am reminded that, Yeats to the contrary, society’s bad guys do not have a lock on passionate intensity. It exists among the good guys as well, in all kinds of wonderful, affirming ways and places.

Take heart. (Crocheted, or otherwise.)

On the Other Hand…

28 September 2021 – On the other hand, we live in a both/and world.

Both the realities lamented by Yeats

and other realities as well.

Realities in the Camosun Bog, for example, where three perfect fungi climb the tree trunk immediately behind your boardwalk bench …

and the bog itself spreads wide before your eyes, a whole ecosystem, quietly breathing.

Or realities in Dude Chilling Park, where the natural ecosystem welcomes a continuing succession of social ecosystems, each one its own celebration of connection and community.

This drizzly evening, dozens of geocachers have gathered (fully compliant with BC virus regulations) to share stories, trinkets and know-how. I don’t know how and I’m not even trying to learn how, I’m just along for the ride, but all around me veterans and newbies are deep in conversation about their hobby, with its twin attractions of high tech and boots-on-ground.

Then the shout goes up: “Group photo, everybody!” People pile in under some sheltering tree branches, with one late arrival (over there on the right) doing a bum-plant in her haste.

Nobody has just one interest in life, and so this gathering is shot through with the textures of sub-gatherings, as people discover what else they have in common.

I am shown some painted rocks, newly tucked into the boundary of the adjacent community garden, and learn something of the back-story.

They have become a birthday symbol for the young boy who helped paint this latest crop, because one year ago, when COVID lock-down prevented any birthday party, his friends each painted a rock and placed it in front of his house, for him to admire from the required distance.

And I am introduced to Deirdre Pinnock, whose name means exactly nothing at all to me — but whose work I know and have on occasion shared with you. She’s our resident Yarn Artist! The person who adorns chain-link fences with crocheted hearts and other symbols of love, support and community.

I gaze at her in awe, and then tug her hand like an eager puppy dog. “Let me take your picture,” I beg. “Choose one of your works here in the park. Whichever.” She chooses the pole.

I walk back home significantly more cheerful than I was a couple of days ago. I am reminded that, Yeats to the contrary, society’s bad guys do not have a lock on passionate intensity. It exists among the good guys as well, in all kinds of wonderful, affirming ways and places.

Take heart. (Crocheted, or otherwise.)

“Passionate Intensity…”

25 September 2021 – An old poem, with new signifiance.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming, first stanza, by W.B. Yeats, 1919

Reference texts note that Yeats wrote this poem in the immediate aftermath of a global war.

We may today instead note that he wrote it in the middle of a global pandemic.

Old Logs & Floating Red

22 September 2021 – Old logs from the get-go; floating red has to wait its turn.

I’ve made my way to Barnet Marine Park in Burnaby, driven by sheer curiosity. I’ve never been here before, it’s on the water, and the rain has more or less probably mostly stopped. What else could I want?

Initially I turn east, away from the pathways and any sense of capital-P Park, hopping across a braided rivulet one thread at a time, onto this stretch of quiet beach.

I’m on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, pretty well right above the “nab” in the word “Burnaby” below (and thank you, Wikipedia for the map).

(An aside: I’m grateful finally to learn the names of each segment of the Inlet, but perplexed by the sequencing. Outer, then Inner, and only then Central? ??? Shouldn’t Central come between … Oh, never mind.)

Logs are plentiful, lying along the high-water mark, everywhere you look, part of the environment. Grasses with log …

and fallen leaves (plus one crab shell) with log …

and then evidence of Barnet’s past: purposeful logs, arranged for cause.

This narrow little park (1.5 km long), in additional to its long traditional role as a harvesting/gathering/processing site for Coast Salish peoples, became a lumber and logging mill camp in the early 20th century.

I will see more evidence of that history once I turn, recross that rivulet, and head back west.

I turn, and there it is, ‘way down there in the distance: floating red. How the eye is drawn to red. I don’t walk that way because of it, but I am aware of it, and calibrate my progress by the growing size of that freighter.

There are pathways, now that I’m in the developed section of the park, and I walk on west with this line-up of poles. Floating red on the right now has a partner: vertical red near shore on the left, a marker of some sort?

I veer slightly inland for a bit, catch that red marker pole from another angle, now just off the end of this concrete remnant of the old industrial days.

More poles marching west, and now a quartet of reds to keep them company: two floating, punch-punch, and two bouncing along, the jackets of visitors exploring the shoreline.

More logs …

and even more logs, now surely the remains of a wharf?

Benches line the path, most of them with a plaque. I always read the plaque, respond to the story, and, this time …

I act on it.

I sit. I enjoy the view. I watch this couple paddle closer and closer to shore, finally to beach their kayaks, tired and happy. (Tone of voice carries, if not the words.) They’re headed for home.

Soon, so am I. I retrace my steps and, before heading inland and uphill to the bus stop, look back to the water.

One final juxtaposition of old logs and floating red …

plus a heron. He turns his head just so, to display that magnificent beak.

Along the Spine

11 September 2021 – “Yes,” we decide, studying the print-out of a Mural Festival neighbourhood map, “Strathcona’s a good choice. Nice cluster of murals along that Cordova/East Hastings spine between Heatley and Campbell.”

We each have some familiarity with this east-of-East-Van neighbourhood, my friend much more than I, but it’s the first time we’ve come here focused on murals. Not that we care that much — it’s good walking territory, no matter what.

But, oh yes, there are murals!

We stand on Campbell, laughing with delight as we stare westward down the alley between East Hastings and Cordova.

Flowers to the left of us …

dancing aerosole cans to the right …[

after that a three-storey building painted top to bottom, side to side …

and just a little farther along, this bold triptych, its cheerful style in stark contrast to the fencing and razor wire that protect it.

Strathcona is a decidedly mixed neighbourhood, with problems as well as gaiety. All the more reason to admire and salute everything they do so well, while dealing with their other realities.

Same alley block, yet more charm. This time an ocean-to-mountains-to-ocean mural, starting at this end with a leaping whale and (off the lower-right corner of the window, by the downpipes) a yellow pop-up seal …

and ending, on the far side of the mountain range, with the world’s most adorable little otter, waving his paw.

We’re out of the alley now, on Cordoba itself & heading for Heatley, thinking everything else will surely be an anti-climax.

Wrong!

That VW bug need offer no apologies. Even if the pigeon is unimpressed. (He’s there. You’ll find him.)

Barely onto a city street proper and we’re off it again, pulled into yet another alley to investigate flashes of colour obscured by the street-front buildings.

This is what we wanted to see close up, my friend telling me the history of this old family company while I go goofy-happy about the colours, the typography, the peeling paint, the paint-brush image on that open door.

Another voice, unexpected and unexpectedly close, urges me to take a picture of that as well.

I look up. The workman, carefully balancing his take-out coffee in one hand, points across the alley with his chin. “That,” he repeats. “Look!”

Yes, wow, look.

I ask if he’s a fan of street art. He waves aside the abstraction, sticks to the reality of this alley. “I work here,” he says. “Watched them paint that. I like it.”

I catch up with my friend, who is talking with some Harm Reduction workers down at the Hawks end of the block. I contemplate this … what? tea ceremony? … mural.

We emerge onto Hawks, look back down the alley, bright murals of assorted eras to both sides and there, on the left, the alley end of the East Van Community Centre garden that stretches up to and along East Hastings.

As we skirt the garden, we exchange nods with a middle-aged man at one of the picnic tables by the sidewalk, and then fall into conversation with him. He looks like he has known a tough life, but there is peace and dignity in his posture and he describes current produce in relaxed, clear, well-chosen language. He knows a lot about gardening, we later agree.

“Go look at the pumpkins,” he urges us, and crinkles his eyes in farewell as we nod agreement and head off down Hastings, to look for the pumpkins.

A while later we’re at Campbell and East Hastings, waiting for the light to change so we can claim the car and go have lunch at Finch’s up on East Georgia.

I stare kitty-corner across the intersection at the housing development on the other side. It’s Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 reborn right here in Strathcona, we agree — but a lot more colourful. (And more affordable.)

We fall into city-as-art-installation mode. Look: the colours of the building reflect the colours of the banner and the traffic signals.

Enough art appreciation. We’re off to Finch’s.

8:15 PM

5 September 2021 – That “long slide to dusk” I wrote about on 18 July has grown markedly shorter.

Sunset then: 9:10 pm. Sunset now: 7:45 pm.

But there is still the afterglow!

Another half-hour of magic, lingering in the sky.

Into the Stream

1 September 2021Getting close! I think, spotting this traffic circle with its mosaic accents.

I’m looking for Mosaic Creek Park, something I mentioned in my Long Slide to Dusk post, after my online search for mosaic-art info coughed up a reference to this wonderfully named parkette. So here I almost am, on Charles Street in Britannia neighbourhood, but not quite sure whether to turn right or left on Charles at this intersection.

I opt for right, for no particular reason. This takes me east to Grandview Park, perfectly fine & good, but not what I’m after. So I spin around, and, as I head back west, have two encounters in close succession.

Sunflower, and plums.

Sunflower is metal, on a hydro pole, no longer framing whatever it once contained, but perky good fun all the same.

Soon after come the plums, not that I immediately know that’s what’s on offer.

I’ve exchanged a few complimentary words about his garden with a gentleman just stepping back onto his porch; we do the chit-chat and then he asks, “Got a bag?” I tilt my shoulder, revealing my knapsack. He beams, holds up a handful of plums — “Just picked them!” — and slides them into my knapsack for me.

So I am in even better humour than ever as I walk the last block on west to Mosaic Creek Park. Talk about “random acts of kindness”!

And there’s the little park, with one outlying chunk of mosaic to welcome me in.

Just a tiny corner of land, but with a big, wonderful story behind it.

The Britannia Neighbours Community Group wanted to do something with this vacant lot; project coordinator Sarah White pulled in artists Glen Anderson and Kristine Germann, who ran mosiac workshops for interested community members; more than 300 people took part, and added their handiwork to the stream of mosaics that make up the “creek” giving the park its name.

And added their names as well.

Individuals, school and other groups, and even neighbourhood animals — all part of the stream. “Topsy,” I’m guessing, is a dog, and Maggie & Pat’s cats are as involved as their humans.

I wander along the stream. Look! there’s a cat …

and here, just to the right of a sweetly cuddled mother and child …

… are those dogs?

No need to puzzle this next one. A heart, universal and eternal symbol, placed here pre-pandemic but even more meaningful now.

I’ve walked the stream, I’m at Charles & McLean, and look back at it, admiring the curve.

I also admire Stonehenge-on-Charles at the far corner (oh all right, a basalt-pillar playground) …

and then settle on a bench for a while. And eat one of those plums.

That’s the end of the Mosaic Creek discovery, but not the end of discoveries — all because, as I walk back home, I notice this musical notation over somebody’s front door.

On a whim I photograph it, and on a further whim, send it to my friend Jeff, a writer/musician/translator with a quick & curious mind. Does it say something? I ask, or is it just pretty?

“Well, there’s music here,” he replies, “but also a technical error.

  1. A piece with one flat (the bulbous little guy after the treble clef) is in the key of F, which takes B flat. The flat here is E flat. So the key as notated, at least by western standards, does not exist! (B flat and E flat together would give you the key of B flat, however.)
  2. There is a cute little tune here, but not exactly that of any doorbell I’ve heard. I attach a recording.”

Jeff also notes (unintended pun, sorry), Jeff also comments that the actual key seems to be A Minor, which has no sharps or flats.

So it’s all a bit of a mishmash, but pretty to look at, and offered to the world (by homeowner, Jeff and me) with cheerful good intentions.

Call and Response

28 August 2021 – But not musical, not this time.

Think… ceramic/botanical/neighbourhood garden.

Call …

Response …

Call and response!

And that’s all.

  • 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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