Creative commons

January 23, 2018

Public art made manifest the potential just below the surface


In Saint John, 2017 was the summer of public art.

The city’s parks and parking lots, wharves and alleys and all manner of places in between were the stages and settings for a mix of unique contemporary projects that moved the dial on our collective ideas about art, the city and ourselves.

Discover Saint John was a key driver behind a trio of exciting projects: the sculpture trail of Salmon Run, Hula’s ephemeral tidal mural and Cargotecture’s creative reuse of the ubiquitous shipping container. Along with these projects, which Discover Saint John presented, the city’s destination marketing agency also supported a handful of other high-impact public art events, including promoting the third instalment of Third Shift, Saint John’s stellar after-dark contemporary public art event that takes over the uptown for one night in August; and investing in the inaugural Moonlight Bazaar, a unique street party that reimagined a neglected parking lot as an open-air gathering place and late-night dance floor.

Varied in style, medium and aims, these projects shared an important – some might say the most important – element of art: the ability to see the familiar anew.

Take the Canada 150 Cargotecture Design Competition, whose raw material was the shipping containers that are standard features of Saint John’s waterfront. This competition for innovative adaptation of the utilitarian containers opened local – and visiting – eyes to the potential in something we take for granted. Cargotecture also situated Saint John in a vast global community of designers, artists and architects who have been exploring the shipping container’s creative potential for years. Cargotecture’s five finalists demonstrate the range and quality of ideas that New Brunswick artists have to contribute to this global activity.

Public art is a powerful way for a small city in a region geographically, politically and culturally removed from the centres of power to connect to larger movements and art practices, to add its voice to that diverse choir.

It’s also a way to import talent and fresh eyes, who may see in the city creative possibilities those of us over-accustomed to it may not. The residency by the American muralist Hula turned a wharf into a canvas and a parking lot into a people place. The possibility of transformation his project embodied seems apt. Saint Johners speak often of the great potential of the city, and Hula’s large-scale portrait made manifest the idea that there’s beauty and value in the overlooked, the neglected. It should inspire others, too, to wonder, what else is worth paying attention to? What deserves a second look?

The British philosopher Alain de Botton, author of ‘Art as Therapy,’ says art has a lot to teach us, “about what to remember, about hope, how to be less lonely, being appreciative,” as he told Macleans magazine. “Art is propaganda for what really matters: the way we live rather the way we think we should live.”

In Saint John, the way we think we should live can sometimes feel proscribed. As Canada’ oldest incorporated city, there’s a pride in our history, but a tension with the past, too, as the way things have always been can sometimes seem like the way they’re always going to be.

Contemporary public art is a counter to that. In interesting, fun and often beautiful ways, public art advocates for powerful values, including, not least, democracy. Public art says everyone deserves access to culture and artworks, that accessibility matters. Placed in the public, familiar spaces there’s a sense of comfort and ease in engaging with works that may feel intimidating in an institutional setting. Museums and galleries are wonderful, but they make some people nervous. And they are not places where you can unfold a lawn chair and plunk down a cooler to enjoy a picnic, as many did while Hula worked.

Likewise, Saint Johners have been snapping selfies along Salmon Run’s trail of 10 sculptures, having fun with the uniquely painted and decorated forms. The works are an invitation to deeper reflection, as well, about our relationship to the environment, to natural and social history. Like the salmon, we are in constant interplay with our environment, and not just nature but the city, which is itself a complex, shifting ecosystem.

Much more than brilliant destination marketing strategies (which they were, in particular Hula, whose epic tidal work drew the attention of media outlets across the globe, including CNN, to Saint John), the public art projects of 2017 instigated a new perspective, one shared by visitors and locals alike, on the city.

If art is, as Alain de Botton proposes, propaganda for what really matters, these works hint at the potential all around us in Saint John, a city teeming with the raw materials of creative expression and artful reinvention.

Kate Wallace