Since moving back to the Uptown Saint John area for the first time in over nine years I’ve been exploring new neighbourhoods on various walks about town. Some time ago I walked past a public sculpture of some sort and wondered briefly at its origins. I didn’t recognize it as anything official—meaning to say, there is no mention of it in any tourist brochure—but something about the sculpture struck me and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. It is made of concrete, painted a nondescript beige colour, and features round, triangular and rectangular shapes stacked in a sort of Picasso-esque manner. It’s a mystery.
In the fall of 2003 Moosehead Breweries unveiled a life sized bronze moose, located at Market Square, as a gift to Saint John and its citizens. Created by Maine artist Forest Hart, the realistic moose is intended to bring more vitality to the waterfront in homage to that perennial forest creature of such magnitude and grace, whose image is seen in highway road signs throughout the Maritimes. It is undoubtedly designed to help sell more bottles of the popular, local brew.
So the moose and the beavers sit comfortably on the representational side of the art fence. Progression sits firmly atop the abstract (some sort of pun intended). Where does that leave my poor unknown sculpture?
So what is it and where did it come from? Is this long-lost public art or amateur lawn decoration? A leftover from the dozens of bicentennial projects built in and around the city in the early ‘80s? The answer appears to be a mix of all of the above. Catherine Sydney, then assistant manager of what was the Holiday Inn, indicates that the sculpture—she uses the word lightly—was built in the early 1980s by herself and staff of the Inn as part of a beautification process that also included extensive landscaping and a large painted mural. The sculpture is based on an image of a horse trough from a photograph taken of the early, bustling days of Haymarket Square.
So with the technical details of my mystery solved, I’m still left thinking about the role of public art and programs like 1% for art. Whether one disputes the finer points of representational or non-representational art, monumental sculptures, “plop art” or ephemeral, site-specific interventions, it is generally accepted that public art is a good thing. I’ve only touched on a few local examples but there are many more. Hopefully, with the city committed to 1% for art in public buildings, and local companies already contributing, Saint John will see a big increase in public art. Harbour Passage and new waterfront development are perfect opportunities. I’m sure I’m not the only artist waiting to jump at the next big public art competition. I could use $100 grand.
© chris lloyd 2006