Peerings & Hearings
Occasional Musings on Arts in the City of Glass
What is an art that truly is and represents democratic expression, conversation, and community?
Since the US presidential election, my musing on and contemplation of community has gained intentionality and intensity. The question — How and by whom is community built? — won’t go away. That question has led to others: How does community affect democracy and vice versa? More to the point, how do I/we foster a truly democratic community and how do I/we have a truly democratic conversation within that community? And these questions have in turn prompted further inquiry about art that truly is and represents democratic expression, conversation, and community.
Glimmers of insight have come to me on the daily walks (essential since the election) that are my main mode of moving around Vancouver. Legs, arms, lungs, and heart have helped turn the wheels of this complex inquiry… It is on these walks that one emphatic answer arose: Public Art! The murals, sculptures, graffiti, and other treasures that adorn and enrich my regular routes from Gastown — South to Chinatown and False Creek; east to the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona, and East Village.
For this post (and future posts), I’ll share with you some of the public art I encountered as I roamed the City’s streets and laneways turning over the lines of inquiry pertaining to democratic community, conversation, and expression.
Public art is a tangible reflection of quality of life and a sign a community cares about itself and expression.
Public art is a celebratory tradition as old as the hills, but it doesn’t have to be bronze, big, or commemorate men.
Whether commissioned or not, public art levels the playing field for art viewing and viewers. How does it do that? By being an art that’s located outside in an unconfined and accessible space. Regardless of media, public art’s primary intention is to be accessible to, and to promote free engagement with, all. All. This means everybody, regardless of socio-economic status, race, gender, etc. Another way public art levels the playing field is that it’s offered to all without expectation; worried not a fractal whether or not it’s pleasing to art critics or the public. Individuals decide to be a viewer or not; they are free to stop or walk by, engage or ignore the art. Noticed and not-noticed is one of the beautiful points of public art. This is an art that allows for candor and spontaneity. The mood, among myriad, mysterious factors, of the would-be viewer, decides.
Public art is simply here (and there). This art asserts its is-ness, assumes its place among all other aspects of community. It defines the community and the community defines it. Public art defines community through the transformation and identification of place and by telling the stories of people and communities who live/d there. It is a tangible reflection of quality of life and a sign a community cares about itself and expression.
Regardless of media, public art’s primary intention is to be accessible to, and to promote free engagement with, all.
The community defines public art through public dialogue and debate. Meanings and roles may be catalyzed by the artist but they are up to all, or none. And yet, each art piece contains the experience of wonder, the precious, essential possibility to connect with people, to places, and through feelings and thoughts in historic and contemporary time. Uncomplicated, unintimidating, this art — found and discovered by the individual — nonetheless holds infinite possibilities and potentials to be life-charging and life-changing. An act of passive resistance to inertia and the status quo, public art allows for the individual to change her point of view and to see public spaces and the world, in new, transformed, and different ways.
Public art is a tangible reflection of quality of life and a sign a community cares about itself and expression.
Walk down the street, late for work or on your way to the dentist, look up, look down, look all around, and be part of the communal conversation!
A few blocks to the east of where I live, there’s a one of the neighborhood’s several open-air produce markets, Sunrise Market. My partner and I venture there several times a week to gather fresh fixings for lunches and dinners. He likes to go earlier, right after the market opens at 8am to avoid wall to wall people in the super cramped space. I take my chances and go anytime a meal’s missing ingredients call. Once, as I struggled to open a plastic bag with one hand, wet cilantro in the other, a Chinese woman snatched the floppy, wet bunch from my hand, shoved it in the bag and back into my hand without a moment’s hesitation and a satisfied grin. The place is grand!
Aside from the constant influx of fresh produce, art in an of itself, the exterior of the building is painted in a series of murals by artist Cristina Peori. The series of murals depict the Powell Street shopping experience and celebrate the Powell Street area, which was called Japantown or Little Tokyo during WWII.
Another way public art levels the playing field is that it’s offered to all without expectation; worried not a fractal whether or not it’s pleasing to art critics or the public.
Included in the series of murals at Sunrise market are Japanese ornamental cherry blossoms,
a mariner’s wheel commemorating the importance of port activity; a dragon
a phoenix, commemorating the area’s Asian influence;
a native moon mask commemorating the murdered women of the Downtown Eastside;
a collection of landmark buildings from Powell and Alexander Streets.
On a rainy, cold Wednesday in late November, my friend and art photographer, Vincent Wong and I took our cameras for a walk east from Sunrise Market into the historic neighborhood of Strathcona and its splendid array of public art…
Crow Highway, painted by artists Vincent Dumoulin, Vanessa Lowe, and RestART in 2009
replicates a photo of Mrs. Lowe, who was born in Naniamo and moved to Strathcona in the 1930s. She poses with a vintage car; reflected in the windshield are the houses across the street from where she lived at Pender and Heatley. The site of the mural is the side of the home where her daughter Vanessa, one of the painters of the mural, now lives.
Soul Gardens, a community public art project led by by W2 Community Media Arts investigates the cultural history of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as told through stories of food, gardening, and community.
The collaboration between five muralists — Jordan Bent, Indigo, Scott Sueme, Melanie Shambach, and Take5 — and five artist researchers — Wayde Compton, Lani Russwurm, Anne Marie Slater, Sid Tan and Cease Wyss —draws on individual and shared narratives within founding DTES cultural groups including the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Nations, and African, Chinese, Japanese and European settlers. The mural is located on a wall of the Astoria Hotel building.
A block north of Soul Gardens and associated murals is the Markerlab building, “a 26,000sf makerspace that provides you with the tools, space, and skills to make almost anything,” which takes up a full block and is entirely covered in paint…
Featuring woolly mammoths, hammerhead sharks and pushing the limits of “prehistoric hip,” “tidal recall,” and “ancestral algorithms” this is one of several murals by Vancouver dynamic duo Nelson Garcia and Xochitl Leal of Nomadic Alternatives.
Each side of the building expresses theme and paint differently…
After a few hours and with frozen fingers, Vincent and I headed back west to Chinatown for a coffee and red bean bun, before scouting for more art…
Our first stop was Newtown Bakery & Restaurant. After recharging, we didn’t venture but a block on Pender Street before intersecting with more art.
This time the art was meant to spruce up the otherwise dull and dissuasive plywood structure housing scaffolding that’s supporting building construction and repair above the Sai Woo restaurant.
This fierce dragon gets pedestrian’s attention at the entrance to the restaurant.
And, these wings… got ours! Vincent and I took many photos capturing the wings of every pedestrian that walked by…
Whether or not the pedestrians noticed the wings or engaged with them, they became an active part of the art.Individuals decide to be a viewer or not; they are free to stop or walk by, engage or ignore the art.
Vincent said: “Your two shots of angel’s wings speak volumes! Unaware, angels walk, pass by our shoulders everyday, doing good deeds, protecting the meek, the humble, and making art.”
The wings, graffiti tagged, add to the layers of meaning and definition of public art.
TO: FireHall Arts Centre for their inspiring 2016–2017, 34th anniversary season Holding up half of the sky, which celebrates “the lives of those women who have gone before us and on whose shoulders we stand as we aim to hold up half of the sky.” My partner and I were in the lively, rapt, and appreciative audiences for Major Motion Picture, an Out Innerspace Dance Theater of Vancouver performance exploring themes of surveillance, propaganda, and belief through the movements of seven eccentric characters, fighting for power over identity and space; Mamahood: Turn and Face The Strange, a one-woman show during which a mother courageously tells of joy, happiness, and many myths of motherhood that come with the birth of her first child; winner of the 2016 Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Musical Production, Miss Shakespeare, in association with Musical TheaterWorks and The Escape Artists takes place in the 1600s when Judith Shakespeare, the daughter of William, fights for a place on the stage knowing to do so will lead to threats from the law.
TO: Canzine Festival of Zine Culture and the Independent Arts, in partnership with Broken Pencil, the magazine of zine culture and independent arts, which took place on November 5, for inviting the Vancouver community to commune with and check out over 100 Zine and Comics vendors from across the West Coast, and to join the panel, “Advancing Your Cause Through Self-Publishing and Zinemaking” and the Radical Reading Series–Blanket Fort Edition, where we gathered under sheets clipped together and lit by glow sticks to hear authors, Carleigh Baker, Adèle Barclay, Jill Mandrake, and Kevin Spenst.
TO: Sharon Kallis and Rebecca Graham of Earth Hand Gleaners for their best most creative community gathering Soil to Sky on November 5 at Trillium North Park, during the Heart of the City Festival. Together, we assembled kites with the pieces made over the previous six weeks at community harvest celebrations, crocheted on a chain link fence as part of Melodie Flook’s Festoonery fence crochet project, turned Arlin French’s walking wheel, listened to the Hastings Street Band, sipped nettle tea and nibbled yummy scones, and gathered Words for Birds to send up to the sky on a kite. Watch Martin Borden’s short vimeo film Soil to Sky.
That’s all for now, dear readers. Look for the next P & H blog in two months.
In the meantime, write to me, leave a comment. Tell me what you want more of and less of in this blog — and in your community — and what’s just right. It’s always good to know what’s just right.
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Be Nice. Make Art. Foster Community.