Saskatoon Stories: Picasso Birdhouses & Gory Puppets 

Everywhere we go, it’s “eyes wide open!”  We are always on the lookout for something different, something off-the-beaten path, something you won’t find (at least not easily) online. Saskatoon didn’t disappoint. 

  You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

  The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise.  

The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise. 

Picasso Birdhouses

On our first evening, we were invited to a friends’ house for dinner where we enjoyed a great evening, highlighted by their quirky art collection and great backyard.  Yes, the one with the amazing pavilion! But what impressed us most were the Picasso-inspired birdhouses.  We had to have one. Well, maybe two.

Turns out we could – and did. And so can you!

They are made by John Remai (if the surname sounds familiar, it could be because his brother’s wife donated big bucks for Saskatoon’s controversial new Remai Art Museum, but that is another story) and he makes them in his parking garage studio in the downtown Saskatoon riverside residential tower where he lives.  

  John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

Once a builder always a builder?

Remai, now in his ‘80s, was one Saskatoon’s biggest developers before retiring a few years ago. As a philanthropist, Remai has been a big supporter of various Saskatoon charities, as well as the local Children’s Hospital.  However, he wanted to not only make personal donations but help encourage others to also give back to their community.  As a result, he decided in retirement to design and build birdhouses to sell to the public with all proceeds going to the Saskatoon’s Children’s Hospital.  Who could resist buying one or perhaps four (our host now has four) birdhouses, three at home and one at work?   

The public can buy a Remai birdhouse Monday through Thursday in the basement of the office building at the corner of Spadina and 20thStreet.  Depending on design, the birdhouses sell for $75 to $100, which is great value given the craftsmanship and complexity of designs.  

Given we were in town on a weekend, we were fortunate our host knew Remai and was able to arrange a downtown studio visit to see the birdhouses actually being built and meet Mr. Remai, a very cordial host and unassuming gentleman.

Indeed, the Remai’s huge workshop (probably the size of quadruple car garage) is located in the underground parkade of a residential tower.  It is neatly divided up into three spaces, one with all the While we were there, two volunteers from the building were painting pieces of his latest design, a “parrot birdhouse” in preparation for assembly.

A lovely sense of order and calmness filled this windowless, grotto-like studio.  Here are some photos, which I hope will convey the scale of the operations and the diversity of the birdhouses being produced.  

  JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

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  Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

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  The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

  JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

For more information: JR's Designer Birdhouses 

U of S: Timeless

  The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

Whenever we are in a new city we make a point of exploring the postsecondary campuses.  They are often full of interesting, under-the-radar places.

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) is no exception as it is home to an Antiquities Museum, a Natural History Museum and three art galleries.  

The campus is an architectural gem as the facades of almost all of the buildings have been built with sandstone or Tyndall stone facades giving it a timeless quality I have not experienced anywhere else. 

From a design perspective, it may well be the best campus in Canada! 

  The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

A-Mazing Campus

The U of S, like most campuses, is a maze of seemingly randomly placed buildings.  Note: I often wonder why postsecondary campuses never used the grid street system, which is so much easier to navigate. The grid street design has been around since before Christ for heaven’s sake, you’d think one or more universities would have used it. However, the good thing about the maze system is you often get lost and in doing so, you see things you might not have if you knew where you were going.  For us, getting lost lead to finding artisans making puppets for this summer’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (River). 

  The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

Gory Puppets 

While trying to find our bearings, we noticed some quirky-looking objects in the basement windows of a building we had no intention of going into. However, they became the impetus for us to head in. Once inside, we immediately peeked into a large studio with three people working away making puppets. We were invited in come in dozens of puppets at various stages of completion.  Turns out they were making all of the 44 puppets for this summer’s production of TITUS A. Puppet Revenge, July 12 to August 19th.

Backstory: TITUS A. Puppet Revenge will tell the story of the most violent and bloody tragedy ever performed at the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival.  Dismemberment, disembowelment and cannibalism will all play out with an amazing set of carefully crafted rod puppets in a small tent tucked into a corner of the site.  It is billed as a delightfully disturbing romp for mature audiences. Due to the detailed nature of puppets, I recommend attendees bring opera glasses or binoculars. 

Turns out we were welcomed by Kristi Friday of Stumped Productions who along with some hired hands were building all of the puppets. After looking around and chatting a bit, she asked if we wanted to come with her to the basement where they had set up a small rehearsal stage to test out the puppets and we could see the finished puppets.  We said “Hell Yes!” It was fun to get a behind the scene tour and an up close and personal look at the puppets.  

  Puppets in various stages of completion.  

Puppets in various stages of completion. 

  An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

  The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

  Taking a break....

Taking a break....

  Hanging out....

Hanging out....

  The rehearsal stage...

The rehearsal stage...

Secret UofS Museum

Next door to the rehearsal stage, was the basement room that attracted us to go inside the building in the first place. Here we were rewarded with the opportunity to see some of the fun stage costumes other production from bubble wrap dresses to vintage hat boxes.

It was like finding a buried treasure or an unknown museum. 

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Lessons Learned

#1 Always travel with your eyes and mind wide open.  

#2 Always leave extra time to explore unexpected opportunities. 

#3 Don't be shy!

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

Birdhouse vs Nest Box

Footnotes: University of Arizona 

University of New Mexico: A-Mazing 

Postcards From Saskatoon: Public Art Capital of the Prairies?

We recently spent an extended weekend in Saskatoon and were most impressed by the public art that was seemingly everywhere from street art to murals, from bike racks to art parks and lots in between.

Check out these postcards and see if you agree!

  "Art imitates life" or is it the other way around.  I love how these girls were inspired to climb and play with this piece by Saskatchewan artist William Epp titled "Tribute to Youth" created in 1989.  Public art should engage the public. 

"Art imitates life" or is it the other way around.  I love how these girls were inspired to climb and play with this piece by Saskatchewan artist William Epp titled "Tribute to Youth" created in 1989.  Public art should engage the public. 

Making A Statement 

  I was gobsmacked by this nine storey tall mural on the side of the First Nations Bank building in downtown Saskatoon.      The mural was painted by Saskatchewan artist Emmanuel Jarus. I loved the tenderness that is depicted in such a large work.  While the child is obviously of indigenous descent, the parents are more ambiguous which allows for different interpretations.     Is it about new beginnings? Is it about the importance of family? Is is about love? Is it about dependence? Is it a contemporary interpretation of the "mother and child" image that has been part of painting history for centuries.   

I was gobsmacked by this nine storey tall mural on the side of the First Nations Bank building in downtown Saskatoon. 

The mural was painted by Saskatchewan artist Emmanuel Jarus. I loved the tenderness that is depicted in such a large work.  While the child is obviously of indigenous descent, the parents are more ambiguous which allows for different interpretations.

Is it about new beginnings? Is it about the importance of family? Is is about love? Is it about dependence? Is it a contemporary interpretation of the "mother and child" image that has been part of painting history for centuries.  

  I think it is also very fitting that the piece is on the side of the First Nations Bank building given its First Nation references.  The red ribbon in the mother's hair is meant to commemorate missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.    Note: The piece is part of the City of Saskatoon's Placemaker program for public art.  It cost $15,000.  Yes this is a real family from the Yellow Quill First Nation, 195 km east of Saskatoon. 

I think it is also very fitting that the piece is on the side of the First Nations Bank building given its First Nation references.  The red ribbon in the mother's hair is meant to commemorate missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

Note: The piece is part of the City of Saskatoon's Placemaker program for public art.  It cost $15,000.  Yes this is a real family from the Yellow Quill First Nation, 195 km east of Saskatoon. 

  The City Centre Church mural in Riversdale also captured my attention. Too often street art is more decorative with little in the way of an artist's statement.      In this case the imagery is very hard hitting, with references to the struggles of justice, alcohol and religion faced by indigenous people past and present.     There is a very strong presence in Saskatoon of indigenous people are using contemporary art genres to express their plight.  

The City Centre Church mural in Riversdale also captured my attention. Too often street art is more decorative with little in the way of an artist's statement. 

In this case the imagery is very hard hitting, with references to the struggles of justice, alcohol and religion faced by indigenous people past and present.

There is a very strong presence in Saskatoon of indigenous people are using contemporary art genres to express their plight.  

  I loved clever hybridization of graffiti painting with realism in this mural.  

I loved clever hybridization of graffiti painting with realism in this mural.  

  The impact of this mural is amplified by the fact the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral is located across the street.

The impact of this mural is amplified by the fact the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral is located across the street.

Signature Public Art 

Every city has a signature piece of art, in Saskatoon that is probably Doug Bentham's "Unfurl"  located in the middle of a busy intersection at the west side of the University Bridge.  One of the benchmarks of a good piece of art is that people still like it and are talking about it 10+ years later. 

In a recent Saskatoon StarPhoenix piece, Bentham notes people still stop and talk to him about the piece (yes, Bentham lives just outside of Saskatoon) and tell him how much they like the piece and how it changes with the weather.  He was also quoted as saying "Unfurled" taught him "it's OK to consider the public when conceiving a sculpture."  

  "Unfurled" is locate in the middle of an intersection, not exactly the best site for the public to view the artwork.  I had to dodge a few cars to get to the base of the piece where the information panel is located. 

"Unfurled" is locate in the middle of an intersection, not exactly the best site for the public to view the artwork.  I had to dodge a few cars to get to the base of the piece where the information panel is located. 

  From this angle is looks a bit like a pelican which ironically are found in the Saskatchewan river just a few feet away.  

From this angle is looks a bit like a pelican which ironically are found in the Saskatchewan river just a few feet away.  

  Move just a few feet and it looks like scissors and thread.  I love ambiguous art that has reference to reality, but lets the viewer interpret the piece in infinite ways.   

Move just a few feet and it looks like scissors and thread.  I love ambiguous art that has reference to reality, but lets the viewer interpret the piece in infinite ways.  

University of Saskatchewan Art Park 

  Hidden away on the edge of the University of Saskatchewan campus is an artpark. Head to the Diefenbaker Centre (FYI the Centre's facade is in poor shape, and the plants next to his grave are all dead - shame on whoever is responsible) and then go towards the river and you will find an unmarked art park near the pathway.  

Hidden away on the edge of the University of Saskatchewan campus is an artpark. Head to the Diefenbaker Centre (FYI the Centre's facade is in poor shape, and the plants next to his grave are all dead - shame on whoever is responsible) and then go towards the river and you will find an unmarked art park near the pathway.  

 Public art should be made to climb on. 

Public art should be made to climb on. 

 Most of the art in UofS's sculpture park has no didactic information i.e. name of artist, title, date etc.  It looks like anyone can just install their art here.  While the grass has been cut, some whipper snippering around at the base of the pieces is badly needed.   Turns out it is called the U of S sculpture garden and it was founded in 1993 as part of a sculpture symposium.  It could also use some curatorial direction as some of the pieces look pretty amateurish.  

Most of the art in UofS's sculpture park has no didactic information i.e. name of artist, title, date etc.  It looks like anyone can just install their art here.  While the grass has been cut, some whipper snippering around at the base of the pieces is badly needed. 

Turns out it is called the U of S sculpture garden and it was founded in 1993 as part of a sculpture symposium.  It could also use some curatorial direction as some of the pieces look pretty amateurish.  

  The University of Saskatchewan campus has public art scattered throughout the campus, however much of it has no information on who is the artist, title of the work or date .  I later figured out this piece is by Eli Bornstein a famous local artist who has a studio on the banks of the Saskatchewan River just south of the city. The piece is located in front of the Synchroton Research building that studies sources of brilliant light.  I thought it was by Ron Kostyniuk who was born in the small community of Wakaw, Saskatchewan, in 1941. He studied at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and later became an art professor at the University of Calgary where I met him when I was working at the Muttart Art Gallery. 

The University of Saskatchewan campus has public art scattered throughout the campus, however much of it has no information on who is the artist, title of the work or date.  I later figured out this piece is by Eli Bornstein a famous local artist who has a studio on the banks of the Saskatchewan River just south of the city. The piece is located in front of the Synchroton Research building that studies sources of brilliant light.

I thought it was by Ron Kostyniuk who was born in the small community of Wakaw, Saskatchewan, in 1941. He studied at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and later became an art professor at the University of Calgary where I met him when I was working at the Muttart Art Gallery. 

Urban Design As Art

  I loved these bollard that look like mini contemporary grain elevators.  I love when art can also have a function i.e. pedestrian safety. 

I loved these bollard that look like mini contemporary grain elevators.  I love when art can also have a function i.e. pedestrian safety. 

  When I first saw this I thought it was public art that referenced the animal traps of the fur traders who were responsible for the early exploration and settlement of the area.  I also liked historical text. Later I learned they were bike racks.  

When I first saw this I thought it was public art that referenced the animal traps of the fur traders who were responsible for the early exploration and settlement of the area.  I also liked historical text. Later I learned they were bike racks.  

  Bike rack or public art? 

Bike rack or public art? 

  If Joe Farfard designed a bike rack?

If Joe Farfard designed a bike rack?

  Bike racks on Broadway. 

Bike racks on Broadway. 

Popular Public Art

  Perhaps we should include children on public art juries. 

Perhaps we should include children on public art juries. 

  Every public art collection must have a huge animal in the middle of the sidewalk.  This is the first musk ox sculpture I have seen. 

Every public art collection must have a huge animal in the middle of the sidewalk.  This is the first musk ox sculpture I have seen. 

  "Launch Time" is just one of many public art pieces along Saskatoon's River Walk in the downtown.  These canoe-like fragments are a collaborate piece by Mel Bolen, Charley Farrero, Michael Hosaluk and Sean Whalley. 

"Launch Time" is just one of many public art pieces along Saskatoon's River Walk in the downtown.  These canoe-like fragments are a collaborate piece by Mel Bolen, Charley Farrero, Michael Hosaluk and Sean Whalley. 

Decorative Arts

  Mural on the side of the mid-century modern Hudson's Bay department store that is now a condo. 

Mural on the side of the mid-century modern Hudson's Bay department store that is now a condo. 

Street Art / Graffiti 

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  MOTA stands for Museum of Temporary Art (MoTA) that was initiated in 2012 by Jeff Nachitgall in the Riversdale neighbourhood. The works are created in a studio and then attached to the wall like they would be in an art gallery. He wanted to engage people who don't visit art galleries.  I found about six MOTA pieces in the alleys and side streets of Riversdale.

MOTA stands for Museum of Temporary Art (MoTA) that was initiated in 2012 by Jeff Nachitgall in the Riversdale neighbourhood. The works are created in a studio and then attached to the wall like they would be in an art gallery. He wanted to engage people who don't visit art galleries.  I found about six MOTA pieces in the alleys and side streets of Riversdale.

Quirky Art 

  I definitely think this entrance could be considered to be public art.  

I definitely think this entrance could be considered to be public art. 

 This sculpture, "Jump" by Brian Newman located behind City Hall would fit nicely into a children's playground. 

This sculpture, "Jump" by Brian Newman located behind City Hall would fit nicely into a children's playground. 

  I loved these Picasso inspired folk art pieces. I loved them so much I tracked down the artist and brought home two - blog to follow.

I loved these Picasso inspired folk art pieces. I loved them so much I tracked down the artist and brought home two - blog to follow.

  I found a few of these fun top hat cross walk figures.  I love this kind of fun creativity.  It reminded me of "Amplemannchen" a cartoon-like human figure used in West Germany traffic signals for walk and stop.  

I found a few of these fun top hat cross walk figures.  I love this kind of fun creativity.  It reminded me of "Amplemannchen" a cartoon-like human figure used in West Germany traffic signals for walk and stop.  

  Another reference to the fur trading industry? 

Another reference to the fur trading industry? 

  Found this mysterious fabric piece in the front yard of a modest home in the Nutana neighbourhood that could easily be that of an artist. I like the idea of utilizing the front yard as an outdoor gallery or studio space. 

Found this mysterious fabric piece in the front yard of a modest home in the Nutana neighbourhood that could easily be that of an artist. I like the idea of utilizing the front yard as an outdoor gallery or studio space. 

  I understand it is common practice to dress-up sculptures in Saskatoon.  This one was dressed up for the Pride Parade. 

I understand it is common practice to dress-up sculptures in Saskatoon.  This one was dressed up for the Pride Parade. 

Last Word 

While Saskatoon might not have a public artwork by a world renowned artist, I think that works in their favour.  Their public art is about Saskatoon by Saskatoonians.  It isn't the ubiquitous public art you see in every North American city.  It helps create a unique sense of place.    

I was told by a local that many of the new pieces are leased from the artist for a 3-year period and then returned to the artist.  Public art doesn't have to be permanent art!

Hmm....perhaps Calgary should have develop a "lease to buy" program for public art which would allow controversial pieces to be removed if they haven't gained public acceptance after three years. 

It seemed like there was public art or artifacts on every block of Saskatoon's city center, which is why I think Saskatoon could be called the "Public Art Capital of the Prairies." 

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

Putting The Public Back Into Public Art

Do we really need all of this public art?

Ranked: Public Art In Downtown Saskatoon