Victoria has a very compact and walkable downtown. Using the incredibly helpful Public Art Inventory website, I created a walking tour of Victoria that would take me past many of the public art installations around the centre of the city. The travel gods were also nice enough to give me two perfectly sunny days for my urban exploring. Map in hand, I started off close to my hotel near Victoria’s Chinatown. The first piece that caught my eye was the striking “Red Dragon” by Ping Tsing at the corner of Pandora and Government.
About a block and a half north on Government just outside the Chinatown gates was “Dragon Dance” by Robert Amos. This mural was painted by children from the Chinese Public School and commemorated the 150th anniversary of Victoria’s Chinatown – the oldest Chinatown in Canada.
Near the water just northwest of the main downtown area is “Four Winds” by IceBear, an accomplished sculpture artist whose works are spiritual in nature. This piece represents the hope for the future as messages carried by the wind. As I was standing here admiring this sculpture, I noticed the Canoe brewpub craft brewery just next door with a patio overlooking the water. Yes, I did make a stop for some sampling. On a warm day, beer and art go very well together!
On the back of a building on Langley Street is this great mural, “Time Steps”, painted by Frank Lewis. It celebrates a 150 year timeline of British Columbia history in dance.
The focal point of Centennial Square is this fountain in the middle. This work called “Ceramic Fins of Centennial Square Fountain” is particularly impressive in its details. The artist, Jack Wilkinson, used close to a half million pieces of Italian glass for the mosaic on the inside of the three fins.
I’d had already seen some outstanding murals the previous day up in Chemanius, but this one on the side of a retail building in Victoria might have been my favourite of the trip. This is “Sher’s Bear” by Jeff King and shows bears foraging for food. The stark colour scheme, the reflection of light on the rocks and water and it’s large size made this very visually striking.
Probably my favourite pieces of public art in Victoria were by the sculptor Nathan Scott. “Shaker”, a sculpture of a man and his dog resting on the edge of a fountain, immediately drew me in. It was as I got closer and saw the sculpture from the perspective over the man’s shoulder (see picture on the right below) that it captured my heart. The look on the dog’s face as he looks up at the man touched me. Yes, I was missing my own dog back home, but I’ll always be a sucker for art reflecting the love between a dog and its person.
Staying (at least partially) with the theme of dogs in art, “Our Emily” by Barbara Patterson sits just off the corner of the Fairmont Empress hotel. The sculpture is of Victoria, BC native Emily Carr sitting with her sketchpad while her dog Billie looks on.
Victoria’s public art definitely leans toward more traditional forms of sculpture, murals and aboriginal art, which isn’t a surprise given its British heritage, its role as a provincial capital and government city, and that its demographic has generally skewed a bit older (trust me, as I push into my 40s, moving to Victoria is looking like a pretty good way to keep my Canadian health care while avoiding the worst of winter each year!). However, there are a number of pieces around the city that you’d place pretty firmly in the modern art bucket.
“The Reef Project” by Michael Abraham jumps off its site with colours reminiscent of Miami. Featuring human forms swimming, sea animals and waves, this twenty foot sculpture is a nice cornerstone piece to a similarly modern condo/apartment building just outside of downtown.
Perhaps the most “out there” piece I saw in Victoria was “Night is for Sleeping, Day is for Resting” by Mowry Baden. These are benches in a small park and according to the artist the work is to emphasize rest and relaxation as a cornerstone of life in Victoria. I like the message and like the use of mattresses in a functional piece of art, but couldn’t shake the feeling that this just looks a bit run down. Maybe that’s part of the message that is trying to be conveyed?
A very literal piece, “The Watering Garden” by Pechet and Robb Studio, reminds of Victoria’s love of gardening, something that is quite evident just inside Beacon Hill Park where this work resides. The watering can itself is seventeen feet high. There are buttons to push to make water come out of the spout and other locations around the can. This functions as a children’s water park that gets quite busy during the summer.
As I read about “Commerce Canoe” by Illarion Gallant, I grew to appreciate and like it more than I did on first seeing it. The installation features a 36 foot long canoe suspended in reeds topped by striking red seeded pods. This public square had been the heart of commerce in early day Victoria, and that commerce was driven by canoes that ferried goods up and down the coast of Vancouver Island. The canoe might be one of the most Canadian of symbols, and standing here as I visited this part of my country for the first time, the symbolism of the canoe as a means of exploration resonated with me for my own journey here.
Mimicking to an extent the greenery that is so evident in downtown Victoria, “Poet Laureate Legacy Tree” by Glen Closson features lines from poetry scrawled within a metallic tree growing from a pole. This mix of the organic (the tree, its leaves) and the urban form (the pole) is a nice commentary of the importance of nature to a city. The choice of poem is also poignant – from the artist’s notes: “…the lines of Carla Funk’s poem “from the gutter” and “point out stars” helped me realize that this art piece must start at ground level and reach towards the sky.”
No tour of public art in Victoria would be complete without a visit to the Terry Fox statue by Nathan Scott. To say I was moved by this sculpture would be an understatement. Fox, for me, embodied the essence of being Canadian. He was motivated by compassion from what he had seen others experience in their treatment for cancer, he was determined to do something about it, he set forward an audacious goal, then with little advanced training essentially said “I got this” and proceeded to run a marathon a day for 143 straight days through spells of horrible weather, injuries and pain. The tranquility of the expression on his face in this sculpture underlies his single-minded determination and is a reminder of something else that is particularly Canadian… through all of the media events and publicity that ramped up as his marathon entered Ontario and drew the attention of the entire country, this sculpture reminds us of his humility and that he was most comfortable out of the spotlight and away from the cameras and media doing what he considered the “real work” of his – to run.