Confessions Of A Public Art Artist

Recently I was walking my sister’s dog Max in Calgary’s Signal Hill community when I came upon a piece of public art next to a children’s playground. I had often seen the piece in the distance when driving to my sister’s house, but thought it was part of the playground.  

  To me, from this angle all of the shapes look like houses a young child might draw. It looks very inviting for a child to run around and through it. It is also interesting to see how the shape of the artwork’s element echo those of the houses in the background.

To me, from this angle all of the shapes look like houses a young child might draw. It looks very inviting for a child to run around and through it. It is also interesting to see how the shape of the artwork’s element echo those of the houses in the background.

Village Fun

To my surprise the artwork was by Cecila Gossen who I have know since ‘80s when I was at the Muttart Art Gallery and she was doing her PhD in art at the University of Calgary.  

I immediately loved the titled “Village,” along with its bright colours and ambiguous shapes that looked both like houses and figures.  While it is a sculpture, it also make references to the line drawings young children make with their crayons.  

I thought “what a fitting addition to a playground.”

I have long thought playgrounds should be designed by artists so they can serve a dual purpose of being both a playground and a small art park. I couldn’t stop thinking about the piece when I got home so I contacted Cecila to find out more about the work and how it got there.  

She was quick to respond and most willing to share her experience

Backstory

Turns out the piece was originally proposed for the 4th Street SW in Mission as part of their Business Improvement Area’s sculpture program that started in the ‘90s as a means of enhancing the streetscape for pedestrians.  

FYI: There are several pieces along 4th Street SW from 13th to 26th St. SW.   

Cecila decided to submit to the 4th St. Sculpture Program back in 2005, so she built a little maquette and submitted it to the art jury, however her piece wasn’t chosen. Several months later, she received a call from Robin Robertson an art consultant who was one of the 4th Street jurors asking Cecila if she would be interested in a commission from the Signal Hill Community Association for a sculpture in one of their parks. 

The Association had a large piece land that had been set aside for a park and a possible future school and they wanted a sculpture on the site.  Cecila was thrilled and immediately said “Yes!”  

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Inspiration 

Cecila’s inspiration for “Village” was the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Remember the piece was proposed for a sidewalk along 4th St SW.  Her idea was people could walk through the different house shapes and perhaps it would become a meeting place on the street where people would gather and chat about the sculpture or life in general.

She loved the idea of creating a little village in the middle of Mission a historic community that was becoming an urban village. The bright primary colours were meant to remind us of our childhood, as was the size of the structures. 

Of course, being in a park next to a playground where there might one day be a school worked too. 

How $25,000 becomes $200

Shortly thereafter, she was told the budget was $25,000, so she calculated what she thought her costs to fabricate and install the piece might be and decided she had plenty of money to do a good job.

She had never done an outdoor piece before, but had done some large 8 ft by 8 ft indoor pieces and was aware of the safety considerations and the material needs and costs associated with larger works.

Then she received a copy of letter from City Parks to Robin, listing their conditions for the permit to install the sculpture in a public park. 

She needed: 

  • architect to produce ‘reproducible mylar drawings' of the sculpture 

  • engineer had to design the concrete base to support the sculpture

  • engineer’s stamp 

  • structural consultant’s approval 

  • contact utilities to mark the spot was safe for construction

  • re-plant the landscape as needed to original state

  • repair any damages to existing irrigation if needed

Out of the $25,000 she ended up having to pay for:

  • The excavation of the site

  • Pouring of an 8 ft by 8 ft by 8 inch concrete base for the sculpture

  • Fabrication of the steel pieces of the sculpture

  • Powder coasting

  • Sod, gravel, twelve wood railway ties for the perimeter

  • 7 guys from a local rugby team (more later)

She notes, “originally the base was to be a circle, but she couldn’t afford the pavers to form the circle, so I had to go with a rectangle, something that could be done with railway ties. She says “next time I would find somebody to help me with all the City regulations.”

When all was said and done she cleared about $200.

But that doesn’t include gas and mileage (every time anyone showed up at the site, I had to be present), postage, steaks and beer for the rugby team (more later). Fortunately, Signal Hill Community Association was able to get the engineer and architect services donated, and there was no damage to the irrigation system. 

  From this angle it looks like two adults, a child and a house.

From this angle it looks like two adults, a child and a house.

  From this angle it looks more like parade or a group of figures walking together on a sidewalk .

From this angle it looks more like parade or a group of figures walking together on a sidewalk.

Confession

Yes, Cecila would do it again. She did not do it for the money, but she was terribly worried it would end up costing her money.  She is very proud of the piece. 

She found, “Parks was a bear to deal with. I think they did not want the sculpture there. As a matter of fact, the original site for the sculpture was at the corner of Sirocco Drive and Signal Hills Heights. I would have loved the original site because the sculpture would have been visible from different approaches by more people.”

In the end, there was a party for the unveiling, lots of people came and everybody loved it.  Today kids use it as bit of a climbing structures, run around and through as they like to do and some use it as a bike rack. It still looks as fresh today as when it was installed in 2007. 

Over the years, many people who know Cecila and see the sculpture will call her or send her a text like I did, telling her how much they like the piece.  

I guess that is the only dividend for artists who create public art, it sure ain’t the money.   

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Rugby Team Connection  

Cecila and her husband attended a fund-raiser for her son Andy’s rugby team while the installation details were being worked out. One of the silent auction items was something like “Five Guys, One Afternoon: Clean out your basement, Do yard work!” whatever.  She bid on it and got it. 

She then told the guys her plan was to get them to help with the sculpture installation and promised them a beer and a steak dinner at her house when they finished. Seven players showed up and did a magnificent job of spreading pea gravel under the sculpture, putting the railway ties in place and sodded the entire area that had been disturbed. It was a very fun afternoon and a fun way to finish the project.

There goes the $200.  

Last Word

Cecila notes, “when we hear how much some public art pieces cost, I wonder what percentage goes back to city offices for the various permits and how much of the budget is spent in things other than the sculpture itself.” 

She still “laughs at the size and bulk of the concrete pad that was required. Someday, hundreds of years from now, some archaeologist will dig this huge concrete cube and try to figure out its purpose.”

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

Confessions of public art juror.

Do we really need all of this public art?

“Rodger That” says 12-year old Matt re public art