Peterborough’s Public Art

Public art is a difficult thing to pull off well. It can become controversial and at the same time emblematic of a city, like Toronto’s Henry Moore, or a target of humour like Oscar Nemon’s Per Ardua Ad Astra, affectionately known as Gumby Goes to Heaven. If not well done, it appears dated and shabby. Monuments to war are popular and statues of important political figures can signify the reign or overthrow of a regime, but there are also monuments to citizens like beloved actor Al Waxman, who came to embody the colourful neighbourhood of Toronto’s Kensington Market; to nature as in Susan Schelle’s Salmon Run; or even installations of sound and oral history like [murmur].

We’ve all undoubtedly engaged with public art in Peterborough and not even been aware of it. The most prominent example is the Peterborough City and County Citizen’s War Memorial in Confederation Park. A very strong design by Walter S. Allward, creator of the Vimy Ridge memorial in France, in collaboration with British sculptor Gilbert Bales, was unveiled in 1929. The stone tablets of the Veteran’s Wall of Honour encircling the central sculpture retain the raw scars of blasting caps and on the other side, row upon row of names of lost boys, commemorating lives lost in World War I, II and the Korean Conflict. Personally I think this monument is a powerful testament to the anguish of war rather than a valourization of conquest.

Possibly the least known and most poignant monument is a modest grave marker embedded in pink granite in the parking lot on Brock Street that was pointed out to me by Jimson Bowler. It is too small a testament to the continuing contribution of First Nations who have inhabited Peterborough for over 10,000 years. It states simply “An Anishnaabe lies here. Rest in peace.”

Don Frost’s Figures Dancing in the courtyard of Peterborough Square belongs to the naïve humanism of the 1970’s. Looking somewhat worse for wear, it still reminds me of Matisse’s painting La Danse and though it is showing its age, kids still like to climb on it.

Esker is one of my favourite pieces of local artwork created by Maryann Barkhouse and Michael Belmore for Peterborough’s Millenium Park. The small dog staring down at the big dog always makes me feel safe and hopeful. But about a week after I took this photo, I returned to find the little dog absent, reminding me of public art’s vulnerability. I hope it will be returned to the site soon. (Note as of 2014, the dog has been returned to its post and my world feels once more complete.)

In Millenium Park we’re reminded of the ebb and flow of our seasons and life cycles with Ojibway Calendar by Curve Lake artist Keith Knott depicting moons of a lunar calendar, with evocative names like Wild Rice Moon and Strawberry Moon, the namesake of one of my favourite local festivals, Ode’min Giizis. A little further south a stone sculpture, Co-opportunity, by Belleville artist James C. Smith, and the Children’s Discovery area in the Steve Chaisson Children’s Park with sculptures by Montreal artist Laura Brownreetvelt add interactive elements to this lovely trail along the river’s edge. I usually see people playing with their children among the rocks and water feature that accompany the bronze figures of 3 children, a raven and a bear.

Behind the Art Gallery of Peterborough overlooking Little Lake’s unfortunate 100-foot fountain is Loveseat, carved in stone by Earnest Daetwyler and a little further you will find Warsaw artist Michael Fortune’s popular and charming Slingshot Benches, reminding us that often public art is and should be fun to play on.

Back on Hunter Street, it is refreshing to see Shannon Taylor’s red and black patterned mural on a cream coloured background, that make me feel like the walls are covered with India prints –  quirky and intriguing, it definitely adds to the walkway off our restaurant strip in the downtown core.

Sometimes public art is temporary, like Christy Haldane’s glass and concrete sculptures along the Trent Severn lock system that we enjoyed in 2012. Or Lester Alfonso’s ephemeral video mapping projections on architectural facades.

And sometimes, derelict buildings invite decoration of a non-traditional nature. The “Ninja” installation on a boarded up window on George St. was part of the urban landscape for several years before it was recently removed. Graffiti is a legitimate call and action plan for beautification which should not be ignored. Nor should the importance of the impermanent art of street posters be undervalued.

A healthy combination of public and private funds secures a wealth of public art. The City of Peterborough declares that its policy is to provide funding with a goal of 1% of the city’s annual capital budget for the maintenance and acquisition of public art. You can see some of the work I have mentioned as tiny dots in the aerial view of the city’s e-Map, but one day I would love to see a map of our public art embedded with detailed information on the projects. While our existing public art is not especially adventurous, it enlivens our urban green space and it is worthwhile to hop on your bike this summer to explore some of Peterborough’s hidden artistic gems that belong to all of us.

 City of Peterborough’s map of public art »

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