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.

The Quiet Pleasures of the Perfectly Ordinary

13 August 2021 – This post title throws me into Alexander McCall Smith-land (many of whose titles follow this construction & tone, e.g. The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday; The Careful Use of Compliments; The Right Attitude to Rain). I considered other title possibilities, equally of the style (e.g. The Reassurance of Scorched Grass, or The Joy of Social Distancing), but finally settled on this one.

All this to say: I am walking past an ordinary local park, and I am touched and heartened by what I see.

Which is… perfectly ordinary.

Just people sitting about on the grass in a small (1.03 Ha) neighbourhood park.

But I see it with neighbourhood eyes. I am right-angling my way around two sides of Guelph Park (aka Dude Chilling Park), and I am thinking how important this small stretch of currently very scorched grass has been, ever since COVID hit our world and pinned us in place.

Right from the start, it has been a precious resource, a safe place to sit outside, breathe outside air, feel free. It still feels that way, even now, as we cautiously test greater freedom.

This is not extraordinary, it is surely the common story of parks all over the world. Peaceful space, for simple activities that result in quiet pleasure.

A place to check your phone for texts (right foreground, below) or to sit on a bench fingering your acoustic guitar (left, rear).

A place to drape your latest crochet-street-artist offerings.

A place to drop your bicycles beside you and just hang out for a while — with the eponymous Dude himself lounging in the background, host to your quartet and everyone else who has loved him since 1991.

Oh all right, small recap of the “Dude” story. I’ve pretty well backed myself into this corner, haven’t I?

In 1991 Guelph Park became home to a large cedar sculpture of an abstract reclining figure by Michael Dennis. Somewhere around 2012 (accounts vary & it doesn’t matter), someone installed a pseudo-Parks Board sign renaming the park, “Dude Chilling Park.” Sign removed; merry pranksters mount an online petition for the name change; on the kufuffle goes for a while. Meanwhile the cedar sculpture deteriorates, since that is what cedar does, and sculptor Michael Dennis offers to recast it in bronze. Citizens, the City & assorted businesses raise funds and in 2019 the new Dude (Reclining Figure, on the paperwork) is installed.

By then, the park-name business has long since been very nicely sorted out. It is still officially Guelph Park — but, as of spring 2014, it also sports an officially approved “art installation” of the name “Dude Chilling Park,” that exactly copies official signage.

You may want to suggest that, given all this, the park hardly deserves the description of “perfectly ordinary.” I’ll sort of agree — and then slide out from under. First: my post title refers to current park use, not its back-story.

And! Second! If we just pay attention, everywhere and everybody has a story. The ordinary always has something extraordinary going on…

Chillin’ with The Dude

15 September 2020 – The smoke haze has lessened somewhat, and I visit Dude Chilling Park, first time out of the house in two days.

Two days ago, I did go out on my balcony, but only long enough to take this photo.

Never mind no mountains visible, almost no city visible either: that blue-tinged building mid-photo, just one and a half blocks away, is the limit of clarity. All this because of winds swirling north from those terrible wild fires along the American west coast. The morning of that photo, Vancouver’s air quality was second-worst in the world, behind Portland. Not only Old Wrinklies like me, everybody was being urged to stay indoors, with closed windows.

Then, suddenly, this afternoon, visibility improves. It’s not great, and I know the level of particulates is still dangerous, but I go for a walk. Over to see The Dude.

Understand this: this neighbourhood green space is really, officially, Guelph Park. Not Dude Chilling Park. Got that? Guelph Park.

And this sign …

is not an official Parks sign. It is public art.

Which is fitting, because the whole Dude Chilling thing is the result of another piece of public art. This one.

Well, to be tediously precise, it is the result of this sculpture’s predecessor, by the same artist. Michael Dennis created the original work in cedar, which after many years had deteriorated badly. He replaced it with this new version in bronze. The official name for either version is Reclining Figure, but the popular name was immediately, and remains, The Dude.

Of course. Just look at it — a dude leanin’ back, and chillin’. As a prank, somebody started an online petition to dump the boring old Guelph Park name in favour of Dude Chilling Park. Good prank, good fun, and tons of people signed the petition. Which did not amuse the Board of Parks. Then somebody installed a home-made Dude Chilling Park sign in the  park. Which still-unamused officials removed.

Things went on like that for a while, Fun vs Unamused, with a new public petition gathering some 1,500 signatures pleading that the fun sign/name be restored. Until I looked it up just now, I believed officialdom had yielded, and the park now had two official names. But no! Even better than that. Somebody donated this perfect imitation of a Parks sign … and the Board allowed it to be installed, as a work of art.

Not as an official name for the park. As a second work of art.

Well, I love this. Somehow nobody loses face and everybody wins and the good times roll and The Dude chills on.

Thing is, now with COVID, I swear people are seeking comfort from the embrace of his body language. They sit right up there with him. Like this.

 

I move down toward the tennis court fence, to check out its current crop of public art. This is one of the display walls favoured by our local (I think local) Yarn Artist, and the display sometimes changes.

One creation never leaves: this now-weathered yarn version of the park’s unofficial name.

 

This creation is somewhat newer — it features our beloved Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, beside the first phrase of her simple mantra for dealing with the virus.

“Be kind,” says the yarn. My mind fills in the rest: Be calm, Be safe.

I’m leaving the park, read a Megaphone magazine notice tacked to a post — and there is the mantra once again.

Dr. Henry and The Dude. We can do this.

 

 

 

  • 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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