Art / Culture

Injecting Life and Identity: Outdoor Public Art in the Prairies

When the prairies lack a rich, green tree canopy in its cities, outdoor public art injects animated life. That is, certain types of art works. Rolling oceans of grass, brilliant blue sky expanses that are Nature’s canvas for dynamic cloud shapes, are already fantastic abstracts for me.

Folk art mounted outdoors at a private home. Has most iconic prairie images. Inglewood area, Calgary AB 2013. Wood grain elevators now increasingly rare heritage prairie structures. Features even mountain sheep on mountain slopes. Photo by J. Chong

Folk art mounted outdoors at a private home. Has most iconic prairie images. Inglewood area, Calgary AB 2013. Wood grain elevators now increasingly rare heritage prairie structures. Features even mountain sheep on mountain slopes. Photo by J. Chong

Beyond Artifice of Abstract Art- Search for Prairie Identity 
For now, I don’t need to see many large pieces of abstract art in public spaces. Not yet, especially in Calgary, which is still trying to articulate without artifice, its natural history, environment and cultural heritage beyond just cowboys and oil wells. The city is rapidly

Blackfoot Indian dancer in vibrant splendour on utility box. By Erlton LRT station. 2012. Photo by J Chong. Commissioned by City of Calgary.

Blackfoot Indian dancer in vibrant splendour on utility box. By Erlton LRT station. 2012. Photo by J Chong. Commissioned by City of Calgary.

expanding like a pea-brained amoeba across its grassy oceans. Like a teenager, it preens to the world, whatever it defines as cool, hip and innovative, art-wise. Meanwhile Calgary still struggles to define its own identity art-wise with more mature diverse art expressions in Toronto, Quebec and Canadian Pacific Northwest coast.

Flip side of utility box features tepee. Calgary AB 2012. Photo by J Chong

Flip side of utility box features tepee. Calgary AB 2012. Photo by J Chong

Need More Prairie Art with Rooted Soul
I’m still hoping for large, expansive outdoor art that celebrates this part of Canada. Art with rooted soul. Perhaps my search reflects me, as a transplant from Ontario and British Columbia. I wish to see momumental artistic expression that is indigenous to the

Mocassined dancing shoes juxtaposed against more recent cowboy boot stampin' celebrations. Near Calgary Stampede grounds 2012. Photo by J Chong

Mocassined dancing shoes juxtaposed against more recent cowboy boot stampin’ celebrations. Near Calgary Stampede grounds 2012. Photo by J Chong

prairies. Any visitor to the prairies wants to see how the Muse comments and visualizes its natural surroundings and local history. Then the abstract art can follow later.

It’s taken me some time to track down some in situ, prairie art works in my meandering bike rides and by browsing the local news. Most of these pieces are quite recent.

Only recently, the City of Calgary has commissioned some larger painted art imagery on its utility boxes –a vibrant, welcome change. Previous older works were too small and pale for any pedestrian, cyclist or car driver to even notice. True, some of the designs reflect the Calgary Stampede heritage with horses and cowboy boots.

Metal horses galloping near the Alberta courthouse. Refreshing breakaway metal art in downtown. Photo by J Chong 2011.

Metal horses galloping near the Alberta courthouse. Refreshing breakaway metal art in downtown. Photo by J Chong 2011.

However, there is an art piece that celebrates the local Blackfoot heritage with an aboriginal woman in flamboyant dress and colour.

Large Scale Solo Aboriginal Images of Pride, Not Showcased In Heavy Public Areas
It’s rare to see strong public art imagery of local aboriginals by themselves without being surrounded by trappings of miners, cowboys and oil rigs. Or worse a statue hidden in the corner of a farmers’ market, etc. Yes, that’s reality too, but it’s doubtful that it’s a self-assured statement of aboriginal identity. Based on the paucity of large permanent outdoor art on aboriginal cultural heritage in this part of the prairies, their voices have been muffled with the buffalo stampede of urbanization.

Bison statue by bike-pedestrian path at Fort Calgary 2012. Until recently, it was half hidden by bushes. Photo by J Chong

Bison statue by bike-pedestrian path at Fort Calgary 2012. Until recently, it was half hidden by bushes. Photo by J Chong

So different than being in Vancouver where there are several galleries and museums that feature exclusively aboriginal art and cultural heritage which are world-class known. You are greeted at the Vancouver International Airport with multiple large pieces of permanent aboriginal carvings and sculptures. Then greeted again by a blend of traditional totems and innovative aboriginal carvings in Stanley Park.

Bronze sculpture art tableau of cowboys and horses in water. Oil Sands Plaza, Stampede Grounds by Saddledome. Calgary AB 2012.

Bronze sculpture art tableau of cowboys and horses in water. Oil Sands Plaza, Stampede Grounds by Saddledome. Calgary AB 2012.

May be I’ll find the rare permanent outdoor aboriginal art in a Calgary park or along its path, that celebrates the Blackfoot Indians. For now, we settle for the beloved bronze black bison statue by the bike path at Fort Calgary.

During one of my bike rides, I encountered the artist flourishing brushes on her design that commemorates Canada’s national music heritage. The utility box art design is across the street from the future site of the Canadian National Music

Finishing touches on music-inspired art work on utility box. Across from future site for Canadian National Museum of Music, former King Edward Hotel. Calgary AB 2012. Photo by J Chong

Finishing touches on music-inspired art work on utility box. Across from future site for Canadian National Museum of Music, former King Edward Hotel. Calgary AB 2012. Photo by J Chong

Museum, the former King Edward Hotel, a place where there was some active jazz music performances. I guess we’ll learn more when the museum opens. I’m all for a Canadian place that highlights Oscar Peterson, the Canadian black jazz pianist that lived and died recently in Mississauga, Ontario. No doubt, the museum will commemorate other Canadian world performers in folk, country and western music as well as rock ‘n roll and pop. Maybe this will spawn more outdoor visual local art.

Wire metal head sculpture permanent art at front plaza in Bow Building. Downtown Calgary, AB. Photo by J. Becker 2013

Wire metal head sculpture permanent art at front plaza in Bow Building. Downtown Calgary, AB. Photo by J. Becker 2013

Horses Favoured Over Picas and Wild Jack Rabbits
Always an eternal favourite artistic icon in the prairies for freedom and independence, are horses. We see them galloping wildly or tethered, working loyally for man. Now, we have yet to see the wild rabbits and tiny pika or this rodent, dubbed locally, as prairie dogs, to be featured prominently in outdoor art anywhere. May be wild jack rabbits could be mistakenly

2012 mural depicts riotous colour of movement --people, cars, bike. Along bike-pedestrian  underpass at  Inglewood 9th Ave SW. Calgary AB. Photo by J Chong

2012 mural depicts riotous colour of movement –people, cars, bike and train. Along bike-pedestrian underpass at Inglewood 9th Ave SW. Calgary AB, below an active rail line and road bridge above the Elbow River. Photo by J Chong

painted as Beatrix Potter children’s storybook creatures? Are the cute pikas are too tiny? In other words, are these smaller animals, not in keeping with the wild west romance?

Autumn fireball sunset overlooking southeast Calgary hills. By J Chong 2012. Is scenery like this too ordinary to capture on large scale outdoor public art for urban Calgarians?

Autumn fireball sunset overlooking southeast Calgary hills. By J Chong 2012. Is scenery like this too ordinary to capture on large scale outdoor public art for urban Calgarians?

Well, may be we’ll see if a bold artist can clearly express in outdoor art, the majesty of thunderstorm clouds towering in darkening anger across an azure blue sky ocean above a diminished cityscape and yellowed grasslands. Just don’t borrow the Rocky Mountains for the painting –they’re over 100 km. away.

More Interesting Reading and Photos
Chong, J. Aboriginal Artistic Interpretations: Exploring Connection, Disconnection and Transformation. In Cycle Write Blog, Feb.3, 2010. Photos of some British Columbia Northwest coastal aboriginal artistic expression and culture.

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12 thoughts on “Injecting Life and Identity: Outdoor Public Art in the Prairies

  1. I’m enjoying these posts so much and wanted you to know that I am. I’m not very familiar with Calgary but years ago I was familiar with Edmonton.

    • My head is recovering from being in Toronto..where people seem freer to express artistically in greater diversity. Also the artistic heritage of Toronto is quite different from Calgary in terms of architecture, materials, etc. I’ve seen photos of the new Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton which looks cool, but have yet to visit Edmonton recently. I was there nearly 30 years ago for a conference with most of it at the West Edmonton Mall near hotel. (Before I took a side trip to Jasper National Park.)

      I think part of the problem is if there is artistic community leadership, it may well be that the individuals are going everywhere else outside of Calgary, promoting their own work, how great Calgary is …but not enough time and marketing it spent educating the locals themselves. There are alternative forms,but it doesn’t seem to capture broad local masses and aimed for younger generation/smaller specialized niche audiences. That’s ok, but there aren’t flashy, captivating local arts speakers and community builders that are front and centre to lead the pack. THis is required. But this is just my own lowly perception as an observer.

  2. The art work sure lights up the city with so many layers of colors. Beautiful!
    I haven’t seen a lot of public art in Shanghai. I’m certain they are around, but I haven’t had the luck to find any. But I stumbled upon a mural painting lately, entirely done by some expats. It’s stunningly beautiful, with animals, people, plants, flowers, celebrity images. Very talented people! Every time I walk by, I can’t help but stop and look at each image that tells a story.

  3. Fantastic idea for a post, Jean– you certainly see a lot on two wheels! Especially liked the bison and your wonderful “autumn fireball” photo. Loved your expression “preens to the world” (like a teenager), and I could really identify with the “pea-brained amoeba”!! : )

    • For certain, one sees a lot more stuff closely or even notices more on bike ’cause one isn’t whizzing fast along the way. The bison statue is iconic for our area. It is well executed piece.

  4. Pingback: Post-Flood: Art and Memory Along the Bow River, Calgary | Cycle Write Blog

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