The steel-beamed sculpture that straddles North Vancouver's Waterfront Park is many things to many people.
To children, it is a strange, undulating playground. To tourists, it is a curious attraction. To photographers, it is a natural frame through which to capture the downtown cityscape. And to nearby residents, it is a symbol of home.
But, despite being one of the more iconic pieces of public art in the Lower Mainland, cathedral, as the sculpture is called, was not met with unanimously open arms.
"I remember there was a bit of an outcry," says Lori Phillips, public art coordinator at the Arts Office, who was living on the North Shore in 1986 when the work was installed.
"What are those black things in the park?" she recalls people saying apprehensively. "It disrupts our water view."
Now a familiar gateway to North Vancouver, cathedral was created by Douglas Senft, a Canadian sculptor who passed away last year, leaving behind a legacy of public art in Western Canada, the United States and Spain. Five of his pieces can be found on the North Shore.
Phillips describes Senft as a leader in his field. He started producing outdoor sculptures, such as cathedral, long before communities were accustomed to the concept of public art.
"At that time public art was just starting to be something in the vision of municipalities. They weren't really thinking about it too much," she says.
Four or five years ago, cathedral was temporarily uprooted from its grassy home for refinishing.
"Douglas removed it from the park and everybody was anxiously awaiting its return. Nobody wanted it to never come back," Phillips says. "It now is in people's hearts."
This is a prime example of how a community's collective relationship with art can change over time. When a new piece first appears, Phillips says people tend to react with an initial gut reaction. In many cases, it's a negative one.
"But once they hear the story, live with it for a while, it usually becomes something they're really proud of and something that, if you tried to take it away, they'd be really upset."
The story of cathedral, as with many of Senft's works, is inspired by nature. Its peaks and valleys mimic the outline of the North Shore mountains and evoke a spiritual quality.
"(Senft) was very good at interpreting local stories. He was great at it. He could go to different locations, extract what was interesting from each area and then interpret that visually in his projects," says Phillips.
Senft was born in Vancouver in 1950 and died at his home in the small seaside village of Royston on Vancouver Island on Sept. 11, 2012 after being diagnosed with lung cancer the preceding spring. Even during his illness the dedicated artist continued to work in his studio.
"It was really important for him to complete commitments," says Catherine Lavelle, his romantic partner and artistic collaborator.
His two final projects were signal, installed in 2012 in Lethbridge, Alta., and locate, installed outside the Loblaw's CityMarket on Lonsdale Avenue at 17th Street earlier this year. Locate won the Public Art Award of Excellence at the North Vancouver Public Art Awards in June. There will be an official unveiling of the piece on Saturday, Sept. 29 at noon as part of the annual Culture Days weekend.
Lavelle, who is busy preparing for the Sept. 27 opening of her and Senft's joint exhibit transience + permanence at Comox Valley Art Gallery, was involved with locate from its inception and completed the project on Senft's behalf.
"He worked on locate as long as he was able," she says.
Senft graduated with honours from the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design) in 1972. He lived in North Vancouver near Lynn Canyon in the late 1970s and he has two children from a previous relationship.
In addition to his many public commissions, he has also exhibited his work in public and private galleries. And for many years, he designed and fabricated welded steel furniture and architectural elements.
Senft's other North Shore works include nest, erected in 2011 at Dollarton Business Park. The piece features hundreds of stainless steel bars representing the twigs and branches of an osprey nest. Creek lines, inspired by the topographic mapping of Mosquito Creek watershed along with Mackay, Wagg and Thain creeks, accents a development at 16th Street and Marine Drive. It won North Vancouver's Public Art Recognition Award in June. And ribbons resembles a cast aluminum river that cascades down two floors into the atrium at District of North Vancouver municipal hall.
Lavelle describes Senft's working style in a word: "intense."
"He was very prolific and very dedicated and very precise. He had a real commitment and passion for beauty and excellence and that was very evident in his work."
Despite the countless hours he would pour into his projects, Lavelle said he was able to relinquish ownership once each work was complete.
"I think that he had a remarkable capacity for letting go and nonattachment. They were no longer his work. He was proud of them, he'd done them to the best of his ability, and then he would let go."
That's an important quality to have for artists exhibiting in the unpredictable outdoor environment. Senft wouldn't agonize if, for example, an unfortunately placed hydro box obscured the view of his work.
"There is no real way to control it and he would just, you know, he would say 'Well, it's too bad' but he would move on," Lavelle says.
Senft was more than an artist, he was also an educator. From 1999 to 2012 he taught sculpture at North Island College in Courtney, B.C. That's where he met Lavelle.
"Douglas's legacy was not just in his public art or studio work but also in his teaching and mentoring and I think that he was very generous in that way. He really challenged people to step up to the plate," she says.
Admittedly biased, she believes public art has an indispensable role in the community.
"Artists really reflect the zeitgeist and are people who look ahead, and I think it's really important for that capacity to be reflected in public space."
There are more than 100 public artworks spread across the city and district of North Vancouver. These pieces came to be through the Art Office's three public art programs: civic public art, community public art, and developer public art. The latter occurs when a private development includes public art as a sanctioned amenity contribution during the rezoning process.
"The developers know that public art really adds value to their property. It makes it distinctive. It makes it unique and one-of-a-kind. It adds to the local neighbourhood, usually telling a community story or something of interest to the local neighbourhood,” Phillips says.
Locate, which features geometric houses set atop poles of varying heights, was a developer public art project jointly funded by Loblaws Properties West and Anthem Properties.
“Oftentimes these pieces of public art become sort of identifiers for a project,” says Paul Fabish, vice-president of development for Anthem Properties. “People might come to say ‘I’ll meet you by the houses on poles.’”
This is the first time Anthem has incorporated public art into one of its North Shore properties, though the company has commissioned pieces in other municipalities.
“It helps improve the public realm, both for the building and for the community as a whole,” Fabish says. “Also it generates some discussion and might even make people scratch their heads and wonder what it is.”
Following an open call for artist submissions, Senft’s proposal was eventually selected, Fabish says, because of its visual interest, because it worked well with the physical layout of the development — both the commercial portion and the adjoining residential condo tower — and because it spoke to greater themes of homes and neighbourhoods.
“We thought it was sort of a tongue-in-cheek comment on our project as well as the landscape of the North Shore,” Fabish says, explaining locate seems to reference the houses built into the North Shore mountainside, as well as sky-high condo living.
Public art is nothing new, but for much of history it has come in the form of commemorative statues.
“The older idea of public art was to celebrate famous individuals,” explains Christopher Pearson, an art history instructor at Capilano University.
That approach to public art changed in the 20th century.
“With the arrival of abstract art, which took over after World War II, suddenly you had these large, very opaque sort of pieces — opaque in terms of their meaning,” he says.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Pearson says it became increasingly common for prestigious buildings to commission artworks.
“A lot of it was larger developers wanting to give a certain cultural veneer to what they were doing,” Pearson says. High-profile sculptors, such as Henry Moore, were sought after to design landmark entrance art, something many critics referred to as “plaza plop.”
Today, Pearson says outdoor art has become more site specific.
“More recent public art, I think, has really tried to engage much more of the community and the sense of meaning, locally, in terms of place,” he says. “I think that’s what Senft was up to.”
He points out that artists nowadays face the challenge of having their proposals approved by various government councils and advisory panels. Art can be enigmatic, strange and even absurdist, he says, but it’s unusual to come by subversive art in the public realm.
Still, he recognizes the importance of art in the community — whether it’s created by local or international artists.
“As everything becomes increasingly placeless and globalized, we need to somehow reinforce that sense that we are in a special place physically, culturally, geographically, historically.”
Phillips says art, like health and sports, is part of a complete community.
“It’s all part of the package of a holistic, healthy community,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to bring culture to the community, to an audience that may never step foot in a gallery. It brings it forward for everybody to be exposed to and enjoy the arts free of charge.”
She hopes today’s young artists will be inspired by Senft and the body of work he left behind.
“He was so wonderful to work with. He was passionate about his creative work, he was knowledgeable, he was completely technically skilled and he was completely confident,” she says. “He’s a real model artist. Hopefully others will follow in his footsteps and do what he did and share their skills and their knowledge with the up-and-coming artists in the community.”
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