Public Art: Capturing a sense of time and place.

This guest blog, by architect Tom Tittemore (former chair Calgary Public Art Board) and a long time Everyday Tourist reader, looks at three public artworks that had a major impact on him on his recent European travels.

The Importance of Statuary (or, ‘Clothes make the man’, Mark  Twain)

John A. MacDonald statue smeared with red paint in Montreal. 

John A. MacDonald statue smeared with red paint in Montreal. 

Calgarians reside in a place where “statuary” (statues regarded collectively) is predominantly of the barnyard variety:  horses and cows mainly.  We also reside in a country where figurative honorific statuary is becoming increasingly scrutinized and ‘shamed’ through new cultural and political lenses. 

For example, this week’s vandalism of John A. MacDonald’s statue in Montreal by anarchists due to claims of his racism towards indigenous peoples. 

In contrast, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland offer a rich palette of statuary that portray key participants in their regions’ respective lengthy, complex, inspiring and tumultuous histories. Three statues within unique, specific sites resonated with me during my recent travels there.  Each reveres the individual’s notable contributions to Western thought, politics and culture.

Man on the Street (Dublin, Ireland – 1990)

 “James Joyce's fictional universe centres on Dublin, and is populated largely by characters who closely resemble family members, enemies and friends from his time there. Ulysses in particular is set with precision in the streets and alleyways of the city.” (Wikipedia)
Detail of James Joyce statue.

Detail of James Joyce statue.

The commemorative statue of this avant garde 20th century writer by Marjorie Fitzgibbon is located on Talbot Street in a recently modernized, pedestrian-focused precinct of Dublin. 

Its ordinary street setting contrasts with the nearby formal O’Connell Street that honors many of the country’s political heroes instrumental in Ireland’s fight for national autonomy one hundred years ago. 

James Joyce’s roughly hewn bronze statue is human-scaled, approachable, tactile, haughty, stylish and proud.  

He stands slightly above the many passerbys, who are likely caught up in their own daily ‘streams of consciousness’ (or ‘interior monologues’ that typify Joyce’s writing style).

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” James Joyce
Locals and tourists alike encounter Joyce as part of their everyday experience.

Locals and tourists alike encounter Joyce as part of their everyday experience.

Shifting Reason (Edinburgh, Scotland – 1997)

“David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist and essayist who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism and naturalism.” (Wikipedia)

David Hume’s sculptural representation by Alexander Stoddart on the historic Royal Mile in Edinburgh evokes the spirit of pre-Christian society. Whilst balancing his seminal ‘A Treatise of Human Nature,’ his pose and simple adornment portrays to me the philosopher’s anti-rational moral philosophy grounded in causal determinism, sentimentalism and atheism.

Whoa! Yes, all heedy stuff here!!  However, this personage is a nadir of what I refer to as the “18th Century Enlightened Scottish Renaissance.”  Hopefully, some of the tourist throng exploring Edinburgh will discover, as I did, how Hume and his other Scottish contemporaries embellished our 21st century lives with increased knowledge, greater freedom, improved health and ample convenience.

“A wise man, therefore, proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”  David Hume
Statues often become urban meeting places and performance spaces for locals and tourists. 

Statues often become urban meeting places and performance spaces for locals and tourists. 

Protestation (Belfast, Northern Ireland – late 20th century)

OK, this example isn’t statuary, but should be considered a variation of my theme.

Murals can be integrated in various ways into urban landscape. 

Murals can be integrated in various ways into urban landscape. 

The political upheaval that took place during the ‘70s and ‘80s has left a perceptible residue of unease and tension that I perceived during my brief afternoon stay and Black Cab tour (a specially selected fleet of drivers who have intimate knowledge of Belfast storied history and will take you on a personal tour of the city). 

The two warring religious-based camps created homage to their respective heroes from this still unresolved event in the form of extensive mural art throughout the city.

The mural of Kieran Nugent, the first ‘blanket man,’ exists within a working class, predominantly Catholic neighbourhood.  Along with others of his generation – my generation – many of whom met a self-sacrificial fate, he speaks daily to pedestrians and motorists from an ordinary brick building.

Without question, this Black Cab tour of Belfast that provided my wife Carol and I with a personal tour of the city through the eyes of, in our case, a Protestant driver, was one of the most memorable events of my trip.

‘When sentenced to three years, Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform and said the prison guards would have to "...nail it to my back.”’
Murals can be very effective as reminders of a city's history. 

Murals can be very effective as reminders of a city's history. 


Appreciating public art, not unlike any other art genre, often takes effort in the form of curiosity and research – plus a good pair of walking shoes! If one subscribes to the notion that a purpose of public art is to tell, or reinterpret, a story of Place from the artist’s perspective, then one has to understand the Place in all its many facets.

As an avid ‘Urban Trekker,’ not unlike a flaneur, public art provides me with a source of wonder and fascination in understanding the culture of our cities.

The statues of Adam Smith, William lll of Orange, William Playfair, King George lll, Molly Malone, General Wellington, Robbie Burns and Dugald Stewart’s - and their stories - also contributed to my enjoyment of this unique region. A region that has strong historical and cultural affiliation with Calgary.

Everyday Tourist Rebuttal

While Tom thinks most of Calgary’s statuary art is of the barnyard variety, three of Calgary’s most popular and prominent pieces are in fact figurative and function much like what he experienced in Europe. 

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The “Famous Five,” an ambitious work by Edmonton sculptor Barbara Paterson, celebrates the five women who successfully lobbied for womens' rights in the early 20th century. 

It is a lovely work that integrates well with Olympic Plaza and invites the public to stop and interact with it. 

Another popular statuary art in Calgary is “The Conversation” by William McElcheran, located in front of Hudson’s Bay department store on Stephen Avenue.  This piece depicts two businessmen engaged in a face-to-face discussion with strong hand gestures.  Given downtown Calgary has one of the largest concentrations of corporate headquarters in North America, this work and its location (i.e. in the middle of our CBD) is very appropriate for our city’s culture.

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Finally, no discussion of statuary art in Calgary would be complete without looking at “The Brotherhood of Mankind,” known by some as “The Family of Man.” Created by Spanish artist Mario Armengol as part of the British Pavilion for Montreal's Expo ’67, these 10 huge (each approx. 6.5m tall and 680 kilograms) naked stick figures were purchased at auction and donated to the City of Calgary for tax purposes by Calgary businessman Robert Cummings.

Backstory: When the figures were first set up, the pieces weren't in the circle formation we see today. Rather, they were spread out as part of an exhibit called Britain in the World. The oversized figures were meant to suggest the dominance of man and stood next to what the Brits determined were their “gifts” to the modern world – things like language, government systems, law and traditions.  Ironically, when they arrived in Calgary there were no installation instructions so City staff decided they should be in a circle and thus became a family – perhaps reflecting Calgary’s strong family orientation.

Last Word

Tittemore is correct Calgary does have lots of barnyard statues, but many do reflect our history and culture which includes ranching and agriculture.

Close up of Begg's sculpture of Sitting Eagle.

Close up of Begg's sculpture of Sitting Eagle.

Joe Fafard’s seven galloping horses in Hotchkiss Gardens and Richard Loffler’s Outlaw (the Calgary’s Stampede’s legendary bull that was only ridden once) are two good examples. 

I would also be remise if this blog didn’t recognize Don Begg’s statue of a very proud and welcoming Sitting Eagle (also known as John Hunter) located downtown at the corner of 7th Ave and 6th St. SW. 

Perhaps a blog showcasing Calgary’s statutory art is what I should be working on. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Dublin Revisited in 36 Postcards

The Famous Five at Olympic Plaza

Stampede Park sculpture becomes family playground