DREAM: Calgary's best kept public art secret?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time flaneuring downtown Calgary’s +15 (the world’s longest, glass-enclosed, elevated walkway 15 feet off the street that connects over 100 office, shopping, hotel, convention and cultural centres via 60 bridges).  Why? Because it is a great place for winter flaneuring in a winter city like Calgary. 

One of the things I love about the +15 is how there it can be “hustle and bustle” in some places and yet, just a few feet away there is a tranquil garden oasis. In the evenings and on weekends it is like a ghost town, which can be fun too.

Another thing I love is the unique perspective the +15 bridges give as you walk above the downtown street life below – way more interesting than Montreal and Toronto’s underground pathways. I always discover something new each time I explore. 

One of my discoveries last week was Derek Besant’s artwork on the window of the +15 over 8th Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets SW. I really didn’t know much about the piece so I thought I’d email him and see what he could tell me.

The response, “Man…  that is one of my best-kept secrets and one of my favourite public art integrations…. anywhere.”  


The title of the piece is DAYDREAM and it was installed in 1996, so unfortunately, like a lot of public art it has perhaps been forgotten as downtown office workers rush by to get their caffeine fix or to sign off on the next big deal.

It consists of 24 white images on the windows of the bridge each accompanied by a short sentence or statements. One side contains “thoughts about a woman” while the opposite side’s are “thoughts about a man.”   Because of the transparency and reflections of the glass you have to look carefully to read the text and see the sketch-like images against the backdrop of the street life below and the architecture that surrounds them.

The cryptic images and text make them intriguing and open to many interpretations.  The text could easily be the thoughts of those people who cross the bridge at any time of the day. They are open-ended statements about the male/female relationship.  It creates a voyeuristic sense of place, which somehow seems appropriate as you spy on the world from the unique perspective of the +15 bridge.

For those who take the time to notice and think about the images and text, it is like walking through a poem, maybe eavesdropping on a private conversation, or reading somebody’s diary. However you experience or interpret it, Besant has transformed Fred Valentine’s +15 Bridge (Valentine is one of Calgary’s most distinguished architects, with his signature work being the stainless steel, razor edge-like Nexen tower a few blocks west on 8th Avenue) into a uniquely Calgary experience.

About Besant

Homage, 6.6 meter high, Mount Royal University campus, 1989

Besant is a Calgary-based artist who exhibits his work internationally.  He is a graduate of the University of Calgary and was the Head of Alberta College of Art and Design’s Drawing Program from 1977 to 1993.  He has several other public art works in Calgary including Skywalk (pedestrian bridge mural) over Mcleod Trail at Anderson Station, two pieces on the campus of Mount Royal University and along downtown's 7th Avenue LRT corridor. Learn more.  

Artist’s Reflections: Notes from Besant’s email

“I love the fact Calgary’s downtown contains within itself a secret network of walkways that links 100s of different buildings. I remember well wandering as far as I could throughout the downtown core before selecting Fred Valentine’s spacious architectural envelope for this work.

I worked with engineers to design a special safety vacuum system that would enable us to work on-site during business hours, even with all the pedestrian traffic and exhale the sandblast debris into containers located in the adjacent parking lot.  

But what was truly brilliant about the experience was the moment when the Engineered Plastics technician and I were part way done the windows and a woman came up to me (not knowing I was the artist) and remarked that the window we were working on was “his” window.  

She was referring to an image of a half-closed window sandblasted onto the surface of the real window, but it also framed an office window just adjacent to the +15 in the opposite building.  The text said, “HE WORKS IN THAT BUILDING OVER THERE."  I took "HE" was the guy she was returning from lunch with.  

And if that was not wild enough, it was the next line she uttered that really meant the artwork held some portent.  She stated, "yes, that’s him, but it is the first window I really wonder about” and then she walked off.

I kind of scratched my head and then wandered back to the first window we’d worked on.  It held an image of a half-empty (or half-full) glass of water and the text under it read “DOES HE LOVE ME?”  

I love it when the sunlight catches the images and text and in such a way that their shadows are cast across the floor space adding another dimension to the public experience of the work. There is a playful public interaction between the light, image, text, street, architecture and human beings that makes this a very special piece for me.

I’ve tested the equation by loitering as if waiting to meet someone in that corridor above the city traffic, but really watching what happens as people walk by. While most people are either totally lost in thought, or on their phones, it is amazing how many people do stop to read the text, ponder the image, often looking up to see if anyone is watching them.

Over the past decade, I have studied the implications of text / image as identity in different ways.  I love embedding the art with a participatory equation.  I’ve done similar projects that are evolutions of this in Hungary, Russia, China, and London UK.  My next one will be for Scotland as a feature for the 2015 Edinburgh International Art Festival.”

Last Word

As a result of the City of Calgary’s “bonus density program” that allows office developers to buy more floors for their development in return for public art, Downtown Calgary now boasts hundreds of artworks - on the streets, in the lobbies, plazas, parks and +15 system. I love getting lost in (the nooks and crannies looking at the art and architecture. Sometimes just for 30 minutes between meetings and sometimes all day.

Calgarians (both those who work downtown and those who don’t) should get out and explore the unique art, architecture and artifacts of our downtown +15 walkway.

By Richard White, February 8, 2015

Architect Fred Valentine's +15 Bridge over 8th Avenue SW, just one of 60 bridges in downtown Calgary that collectively create a 20 km walkway.