Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.


I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!

Father and Son

How many people do you see in this public artwork?

IMG_0344

It took me a moment to notice the boy on the right, surrounded by water.

Fascinating, I thought, as I then went on to explore the other public artworks in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

It was only when I came back to this spot and had some time to waste while waiting for a train to pass, that I noticed the sculpture had changed.

IMG_0352

And I became even more interested in this sculpture.

I saw a lot of public art in Seattle last weekend while I was there for an arts marketing conference. It’s not difficult. As one of the tourism brochures states, “From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.”

Seattle, like Vancouver, gets a lot of rain, so it’s unsurprising that there are many references to raindrops and umbrellas. The raindrop seats in the bike rack shelter at McGraw Square were fun to sit and twirl around in, but the story doesn’t go much deeper than this. Same with the inside-out, wind-blown Angie’s Umbrella that marks the end of Pike Place Market and the beginning of Belltown. It’s visually appealing, but it doesn’t tell much of a story other than it rains a lot (and a quick Google search reveals that it’s named after the artist’s mother, just because).

IMG_0358

This Red Popsicle standing 17 feet tall is fun, playful, and intriguing with how it’s leaning on just one of the wooden sticks. Public art can be as simple as this—something to brighten your day as you walk along—but there’s a reason the fountain artwork in Olympic Sculpture Park stayed with me and easily became my favourite piece that I saw in Seattle.

It tells a story. There are layers of meaning. Even the title of the piece, Father and Son, suggests this. It clues the viewer in to the relationship between these two life-sized figures. I found the artwork heartbreaking yet hopeful.

IMG_0353

It makes me want to write a poem—how father and son keep missing each other, exposed at different times. Yet they continue to try.

Public art always has its critics, and nude artworks seem to heighten that. Father and Son was no stranger to controversy. I was saddened to read in this article from Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat that critics interpret the figures’ relationship as pedophiliac. Why does nudity get automatically read as sexual or erotic? Do we have that reaction to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures?

This artwork has an interesting backstory. It was the result of million-dollar gift to the City of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes who stipulated in his will that the money be used for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. The City handed it off to Seattle Art Museum who commissioned French-born, New-York based artist Louise Bourgeois.

So Bourgeois had boundaries to work within. She placed two nude male sculptures on separate platforms, with alternating cloaks of water falling first on one, then the other at hourly intervals. The nudity makes complete sense to the story she’s telling about the relationship between father and son. They are both reaching for each other across an 8-foot gap, alternately exposed and revealed. Alienated but attempting connection. Nudity is about vulnerability, she says.

Sure, the artist could have clothed the figures, but it wouldn’t have been as evocative, especially since the masculine script embedded in western culture is to be tough, strong, and not show emotion. Keep your layers on and your walls up. Known for her unsettling sculptures, Bourgeois is pushing back on this narrative. Also, how many artworks do you ever see of a father and son? Mother and child, certainly (I’m thinking of all the Virgin with child paintings I quickly grew tired of in the Louvre or Uffizi), but where are the fathers with their children?

In the same Seattle Times article, I appreciated what other Seattleites wrote in to say about the artwork when it was proposed:

“This sculpture just left me feeling like I wanted to scream — LET THE FATHER SHOW LOVE AND STRENGTH TO HIS SON!”

Another e-mailer said he saw hope in the notion that a father and son would attempt that reach.

“If it was a statue of me and my father, we’d have our backs turned to each other.”

If an artwork can evoke these kinds of responses, wow. That’s a powerful piece.

I’m reading Ruminate‘s Exposure issue right now and the artwork and writing inside echo these two nude figures standing in the fountain. The sheets are pulled back, arms outstretched, a gesture that asks: do you see me?

IMG_0507

The Conditional Figure

I had just heard Said the Whale talk about their new album As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide at CBC’s Musical Nooners. Stephen Quinn asked frontman Tyler Bancroft about the inspiration behind this noticeably darker album that deals with the deaths of friends, neighbours, and babies. Tyler said something like, “After turning 30, life gets a lot more difficult. There are many beautiful things too, but it comes with a bunch of rough stuff.”

IMG_4742

As a recent 30-year-old, this concert me in a contemplative mood as I wandered downtown on my way to the HSBC building to see David Robinson‘s sculptures at the Pendulum Gallery.

I had seen Robinson’s work previously—in his Parker Street studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl and at Regent College.

The works command attention in the high-ceilinged, glass-covered atrium, as if the lines and angles of his sculptures play off the architecture.

IMG_4743

There is usually an element of tension in his works, whether it be balancing precariously while blindfolded, falling out of a safety net, or pushing and pulling against larger-than-life forces.

IMG_4751

David Robinson, Chair (2013), mixed media. 67 x 33 x 74 inches.

IMG_4764

David Robinson, Draped Figure (2009), paper, resin, 31 x 44 x 15 inches.

IMG_4772

David Robinson, Dead Reckoning (2017), ed. 5. Sitka spruce, Baltic birch, polymer-gypsum, bronze, 96 x 64 x 11 inches.

IMG_4760

David Robinson, Departure (2015), bronze/Douglas fir, 27 x 33 x 9 inches.

The way curator Chris Keatley wrote about this exhibit, aptly named The Conditional Figure, seemed to piggyback on what Said the Whale had just talked about.

This exhibition presents large-scale sculptural works that consider the figure as a conditional entity, created to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. Figures are split and penetrated, surfaces are textured and rough. The idea of the unassailable body, strong, solid and resolute, is brought into question, bringing forward the view of ourselves as systems in flux, constantly changing and evolving in time and space. In some works, the figures themselves retain a solidity of form, and it is their extended bodies – boats, planes, wings, ladders etc. – that suggest the fragile nature of both structures and beliefs in which we wrap ourselves.

How has my view of self changed as I’ve aged? What do other people see and what do I see when I look in the mirror? Has the blindfold come off? Am I as secure as I think I am? Am I paddling alone? Against the current? What load am I pulling?

IMG_4768

David Robinson, Binary Vision (2003), ed. 6, polymer-gypsum, glass steel, 90.5 x 45 x 20.5 inches.

I view David Robinson’s sculptures as poetry in space. They ask the tough questions about existence. The vast white walls serving as the background to many of the works create breathing room to consider these questions in a gentle, unhurried way that almost feels too bare.

This exhibit complemented the permanent public artwork in the atrium by Alan Storey I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Talk about balance and tension. This 1600 kg aluminum pendulum swings back and forth from the roof about 6 metres out, aligning with its base briefly before departing again.

IMG_4774

If you’re downtown, I highly recommend you see Robinson’s exhibit before it closes today!

Cycling the Arbutus Greenway

I had seen others doing it and it looked like fun. So today was the day I finally hopped on the Arbutus Greenway for myself.

IMG_4853

This former railway track was recently converted into a paved pathway, connecting Marpole to Granville Island. It provides a designated north-south route for cyclists and walkers to get from one end of the City to another, something sorely lacking up until now.

IMG_4882

I loved it. It was so convenient to hop on 70th Avenue in Marpole and ride to 41st and onto Southwest Marine Drive to meet up with some friends at UBC. On my way home, I took 16th Avenue back to the Greenway so I could cover most of the path. It’s 8.5 km long—here’s a map.

These vibrant poppies and purple wildflowers near 70th were a delight to see as I started out.

IMG_4838

IMG_4843

Community gardens line the right side of the path as you’re heading north. Someone had fun with these scarecrows.

IMG_4878

I loved seeing parts of the City I hadn’t seen before. I was riding slowly up Vancouver’s spine, admiring houses that belong in a fairy tale, smiling at strangers standing in gardens with a hose in hand, and breathing in the scent of wildflowers spilling onto the pavement.

IMG_4880

It was a leisurely ride devoid of traffic and steep hills! Most of the intersections had helpful signage that indicated to cross with pedestrians at the light, like you can see these cyclists doing at Arbutus and 16th.

IMG_4849

Benches and portable toilets were available along the way. The biggest hill from this point riding south was winding through the Quilchena neighbourhood. But it provided some fabulous new lookout points, including slices of ocean.

IMG_4872

IMG_4874

Something to note is that there aren’t many trees along the trail so shade isn’t an option, which you really notice on hot days like today.

Between Nanton Road and Quilchena Park, these colourful rocks stopped me in my tracks. Their messages and the conversations they inspired were my favourite experiences along the route.

IMG_4858

Painted all colours of the rainbow, they are as diverse as the people I saw using the path: cyclists, walkers, joggers, seniors, kids, families, rollerbladers, people in wheelchairs, skateboarders, you name it.

IMG_4862

IMG_4856

“Pretty cool, eh?” An oldish man spoke to me from the walking side of the path and I said, “Totally cool.” He pointed a little further down where a plaque explained this public artwork done by York House Grade 2 students, a Vancouver Biennale project.

I told him this was my first time on the path and he said he walks parts of it almost every day. “So it’s well used?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he replied. He said it’s packed on the weekends and he’s particularly encouraged to see a lot of seniors walking with canes on it. He said many seniors don’t feel safe navigating heavy intersections, so this designated route gets more people out enjoying nature and the city who wouldn’t otherwise. I completely get that as a cyclist who doesn’t love riding on busy streets!

IMG_4866

Near the sign, I spoke with another man who was admiring the rocks. He said this Greenway really was a case of “build it, and they will come.” Apparently it’s just a temporary path though with plans to make it into “a destination that fosters both movement and rich social interaction – inspired by nature and the stories of the places it connects” (from the City website). I kind of like it just as it is though, with the exception of adding more public art and trees.

IMG_4854

I ended up having a third conversation with someone along the Greenway when I stopped at 57th Avenue to pick up a few things from Choices Markets. One of the Rainbow Rocks said “Make community” and these friendly encounters with strangers seemed to affirm the spirit of that message already, an experience I don’t take for granted in Vancouver.

IMG_4851

Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

IMG_4728

IMG_4729

IMG_4733

Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

IMG_4737IMG_4738

Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

IMG_4735

From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!

Marpole’s Golden Tree

A piece of Stanley Park has uprooted to my neighbourhood of Marpole. With a bit of a colour change.

The newest public art in Vancouver is Golden Tree by Douglas Coupland, installed this past August at the corner of Marine Drive and Cambie Street, in front of Intracorp’s MC2 development.

img_4163

This artwork sure adds colour to a cloudy day. View from Marine Gateway.

It stands out alright, not just for its size (13 metres tall, the exact replica of Stanley Park’s Hollow Tree), but it also stands out for its colour—gold.

In an interview with the CBC, Coupland says, “I think its more a head-turner, a, ‘what the heck was that?’ That’s my favourite reaction.”

Just to clarify, Stanley Park’s famous 700 to 800 year-old Hollow Tree is still standing in Stanley Park. After the heavy windstorm in 2006, the tree was scheduled for removal due to safety concerns, but thanks to the efforts of the Hollow Tree Conservation Society and private donations, it is still standing (albeit with cables and steel).

Coupland’s replica is made out of steel-reinforced resin and fiberglass, encased in a gold finish.

img_4166

The gold looks a little garish to me. I tend to think I would like it better if it looked natural but then it would be like having a real tree there except you know it wouldn’t normally grow there so then it would just be weird. At least the gold makes it distinct. And better than highlighter purple or blue or pink. There’s something regal and magical about gold. Maybe it’s already “growing” on me (see what I did there?).

img_4167

But why replicating this tree in Marpole is significant, I do not know. All the CBC article mentions is that Coupland said there are a lot of memories attached to the tree, which is why he chose to imitate it: “I think it takes us from one century to the next.”

Maybe so, but what is the relationship between Stanley Park, the northernmost point of the city, and Marpole, Vancouver’s southernmost? Obviously the artist is trying to make some sort of connection here with the large image of Stanley Park in the background of the artwork.

img_4174

Does the tree reference something in Marpole’s history that not many know about? Or is it trying to say something about old and new? Nature and city? Nature and art/imitation?

I love that Marpole is getting more and impressive public art but I wish this piece spoke better to its context.

Have you seen Golden Tree yet? What are your thoughts?