University of Calgary: Can art change anything?

On Friday, December 5th from 11:15 to 11:50 am, artist Teresa Posyniak and the Law School at the University of Calgary invite Calgarians to attend the 20th anniversary of the installation of the sculpture "Lest We Forget." 

In conjunction with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this event will be an opportunity to collectively reflect on Posyniak's installation LEST WE FORGET which was installed at The Law School at the University of Calgary (2nd floor of the Murray Fraser Hall) twenty years ago.

Installed in 1994, it is her personal response to violence against women starting with the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989.  

Guest blog by Teresa Posyniak, November 30, 2014 

Building a memorial to murdered and missing Canadian women wasn’t something I’d thought of back in 1989.  At age 38, with a six-month old daughter and 2 year old son, I had delayed motherhood to pursue an MFA and establish a career as an artist and instructor at The Alberta College of Art and Design.   

My 80’s work, The Sanctuary installations - large, contemplative, full of metaphors relating to vulnerability and resiliency - never overtly reflected my social activism.  All that changed after the Montreal massacre of 14 women on December 6th, 1989 at L’ Ecole Polytechnique.  This tragic event and concern for my kids’ future pushed me to make a strong art statement about violence against women. 

Would my daughter Kaia ever be safe, even at university?  Would my son, Nick, grow up to be like his father, Clarence Hookenson - considerate and respectful of women? 

As I began exploring ideas about violence against women through drawings and paintings, I thought of my own experiences – of being sexually assaulted, of helping out girlfriends who’d been attacked, of growing up around an aunt, mother of 5, who lived in terror of my uncle’s rages, and of sexual harassment which nearly derailed my graduate studies at the University of Calgary.

Can art be a vehicle for social change? 

I was at a loss how to express these hopes and fears through art.  While I admired some political art of the past, I was also aware that socially engaged art sometimes sacrifices aesthetics for the big message or conversely, leaves the viewer bewildered, unaware of the artist’s ideas.  And there’s the big question, can art ever be a vehicle for social change?  

My inspiration came in early 1991 when I read a “femicide” list of murdered women compiled by Mary Billy of B.C. in This Magazine (formerly called This Magazine is about Schools).  I was fascinated by Ms. Billy’s idea that rather than focussing on the names of the men who murder women, we should instead remember the female victims’names, “make their deaths count for something”. 

With that in mind, I designed and built a sculpture upon which I wrote each woman’s name and age of death, adding more as they sadly appeared regularly in the local media.  After the names of the Montreal 14, I pointedly added those of nine local aboriginal sex trade workers (not identified as aboriginal on the sculpture) whose murderer(s) had not yet been found.  I felt strongly that not enough attention was focussed on investigating these unsolved murders. 

Was it because they were First Nations or Metis?  They were someone’s daughter, mother, aunt, sister or friend as well!  These questions continue to rage today.      

LEST WE FORGET - name side detail 1.jpg
Lest We Forget unfinished side

I was unprepared 

Lest We Forget, constructed with paper, wood, styrofoam, paint and leaves – all easily destructible materials- was never intended to be a public sculpture.  During its first exhibition, curated by Muttart Gallery  director Richard White in 1992, it attracted the attention of University of Calgary law school alumni Judy Maclachlan who felt that this sculpture, if placed in the Law School (then under construction), would serve as a reminder to lawyers and lawmaker of their responsibilities. 

Once Dean Sheilah Martin secured approval for the sculpture’s placement in the building’s airy main foyer across from the Law Library, the need for the protection of a glass and steel case posed another hurdle. 

Lest We Forget made it past the proposal stage due to the generosity of Bahaa and Emily Faltous of Moli Industries who designed, built and installed the protective case at a significant discount.  Fundraisers paid for the materials.  

Helen Zenith of Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art (my representation at the time) convinced the The Alberta Foundation for the Arts to buy Lest We Forget and permanently loan it to the Law School.  It took almost two years and the efforts of many to see this project to its conclusion.    

I was unprepared for the depth of emotion and the exposure to the victims’ families’ trauma.  Some called me to tell me about the tragic deaths of their loved ones.  I added names to the sculpture when requested, even responding to a Calgary Sun reporter’s request to include the name of a mother of five who was randomly murdered in Pincher Creek while minding the family store alone.  

Before its installation, Suzanne LaPlante Edward, the mother of Anne-Marie Edward - one of the Montreal 14 - visited my studio while on a cross country tour to promote gun control.  I also received a visit from the extended family of an aboriginal woman murdered while working in the sex trade.  They brought the woman’s 18-month old son to see the sculpture and took his picture next to his mother’s name.  Ten years later, he left a rose and a card at the base of the memorial after the annual December 6th vigil. 

Lest We Forget

Sign of Hope 

I’ve always believed in the power of art.  Did Lest We Forget change anything? Did it increase anyone’s awareness?  I’m not sure. 

Twenty years after its installation, we will formally gather again to remember the women and to talk about ways we’ve moved forward and what needs to be done. 

To me, that’s a sign of hope.

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Kudos to CMLC for making a tough decision

By Richard White, May 8 2014

I think everyone I know was surprised to learn that Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s (CMLC) is closing the public washrooms on Riverwalk in East Village.  Since its inception in 2007, CMLC has done an amazing job of developing and implementing an ambitious vision and master plan for the once-troubled and downtrodden East Village community.  

Throughout the East Village redevelopment, CMLC has been very transparent in the process, hosting numerous open houses before making any key decisions.   It truly has been a collaborative and cooperative community process.  While not everyone will agree with every decision (you can’t make everyone happy), there was always lots of public consultation as part of the any decision-making.

In this case, CMLC engaged a group of experts last summer to assess the perception of safety across in East Village, which included three community meetings. The recent changes in Riverwalk programming i.e. close the washroom except for events and removal of a few lounge chairs was based on dialogue with the community, police and crime prevention experts.

As a founding Board Member of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association, an International Downtown Association Board member and now as the community strategist at Ground3 architecture, I am passionate about creating public spaces that are safe and attractive for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

This is not a homeless issue

I have been very impressed by the work of CMCL in taking risks and being ambitious with the design and programming of Riverwalk incorporating inclusivity at all times. While some see this as an affront to the homeless population and clients of the nearby Calgary Drop-In Centre, I believe their clients also want and deserve a clean and safe Riverwalk. I don’t believe this is a decision to penalize the homeless, but rather a proactive decision to deal with criminal activities taking place in the washrooms. I have a strong hunch there is “more to the story” behind why the decisions were made - I don’t think we need to know the all the ugly details. 

The decision to close the washrooms (except when an event is happening) and the replacement of the few permanent lounge chairs (there are still hundreds of places to sit along the river and pathway) after four years was a tough one for CMLC to make.  

This is one of public washrooms that have been closed except for event use.  

Riverwalk is well used by Calgarians of all ages and for a variety of activities.  Note there are lots of places to seat, the few lounge chairs that have been removed will not be missed. 

Zero Tolerance 

I am confident the Police and Bylaw Officers can and will deal with it the criminal and conduct issues in East Village. The City of Calgary has a Public Behaviour Bylaw that addresses some of the public space issues we have faced in the past.

The following are prohibited in public places:

  • Fighting
  • Defecating and urinating
  • Spitting
  • Loitering that obstructs other people
  •  Standing or placing one’s feet on tables, benches, planters or sculptures
  • Carrying a visible knife

I would like to add “loud swearing” to the list.  I know this was an issue on Stephen Avenue and Olympic Plaza in the past. Some individuals would persistently shout and swear at each other using language that would intimidate everyone within earshot (including me and I think I am very tolerant).  It was a way of a few taking ownership of a public space and keeping others away by making them feel so uncomfortable they would walk away and not return. These undesirable behaviors should not be tolerated. 

I believe a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to violent, destructive and aggressive conduct in public spaces. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable in a public space.  Everyone needs to be held up to the same community conduct standards - rich and poor, young and old.  

My recommendation

Police and Bylaw officers should have a “zero tolerance” policy along Riverwalk this summer to ensure it is a safe place for ALL Calgarians. Enhanced policing and bylaw enforcement has worked before to make problem areas safer and I don’t see why it can’t work again.

I have no problem if CMLC wants to close the washrooms and remove a few permanent lounge chairs.  But I would hope that once the intervention has been complete they might experiment with opening the washrooms seven days a week from 9 am to 9 pm from May to September and 10 am to 3 pm from October to April. I see no need for them to be open 24-hours a day.

The addition of new condos, office buildings, restaurants, cafes, a library and museum will add lots more pedestrian traffic to East Village in the next few years. More people will make the area safer and more attractive for everyone. 

Last Word

This situation is very unfortunate, happening just as new condos are rising out of the ground, the National Music Centre is under construction and the new Library visioning is happening. The good news is the addition of more people living, working and playing in East Village over the next few years will make it safer for everyone (including the homeless) as it will mean more eyes on the streets and public spaces - something criminals shy away from.  People forget there was a time when Eau Claire was a prostitute stroll – look at it today.

Creating great urban villages is not just about managing big construction projects. It is also about getting the small operational things right.  Creating good public spaces requires ongoing management and experimentation in response to new issues and opportunities.

I believe a city is defined by the attractiveness of its public spaces as gathering places for passive activities – think Central Park in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago. Riverwalk is an award-winning public space that has attracted international attention as one of the best designed public spaces of the 21st century.

We must do all we can to make Riverwalk and all of Calgary’s parks and public spaces safe and and inviting for ALL Calgarians. I say kudos to CMLC for making a tough decision.

Riverwalk has been designed so special events can take place and yet others can enjoy a passive quiet experience near by. 

Here are the few lounge chairs that have been removed. While they are nice, they are not essential. 

This is Chicago's Millennium Park. Great public spaces have areas where people love to gather, linger, relax and chill-out.