Art at the heart Public art is much more than creating something nice to look at By Oona Woods Every society, or gathering of people has some kind of art on show as a cultural emblem. As a race humans are fairly well known for their ancient impulse to write on walls and surround themselves with their style. It’s a kind of exterior decoration. Whether carving on rocks, erecting 70-foot high paintings of Chairman Mao, or spraying graffiti tags, we have an indelible urge to mark territory with meaning. It’s a way of displaying who we think we are, (or who we want you to think we are). So in areas of the North of Ireland the Protestants paint their pavements with the red, white and blue of the Union Jack and the Catholics paint theirs orange, white and green like the Irish tricolour so you know exactly which area you’re in at all times. You’ll also be in no doubt you’re probably on the Falls Road when you see a four story high Virgin Mary and Sacred Heart before you. This impetus has many different shades. In Mexico, China, Russia, Cuba and Guatemala political art takes up the walls around you. Either as an indication of a struggle that has no other voice or as an indication of a dictatorship that is sitting pretty on top of any voice that would dare to deface the paintings. In New York City the downtown districts are decorated with art that speaks of cultural realism, as opposed to little happy fairies that will distract you from the urban squalor. And in Seattle public art recycles historical data and puts it on show tying the place and space in with time and history. The underlying point in all of this is relevancy. Without some kind of social, geographic or cultural relevancy you may as well be tying a bow on a baboon and calling it Mary. Whistler, in its infinite ability to plan ahead, not only has a plan for a public art policy, but also has a public art committee made up of locals, landscape architects, gallery owners, developers, architects and representation from council. The PAC and the municipal parks department released a pamphlet explaining the concept of public art in the context of Whistler. In it they say that public art can be a catalyst, "in the creation of significant public open spaces that are beautiful, thought provoking and ingenious. By including art in community planning and building projects, and by the integration of art into the fabric of neighbourhoods, we enrich the public realm. "Public art is based on the premise that public well being is enhanced by the presence of art in public places. The best public art has meaning and involves ideas or values that are understood and shared by the community." The reasons behind the need for art in our communities can get a bit nefarious. It just seems to emerge as one of the first things to be installed in life after the basic needs of food, shelter and warmth have been established. At this stage in Whistler’s development the villages and outlying areas have all been formed. Now they are looking to add the finishing touches. The PAC and the parks department reached down to Seattle to bring up the inspiration for the town’s future public artistic development. When public art advocate Jack Mackie came in last week to inject adrenaline into the movement for public art in Whistler he stressed the point of relevancy. "It’s not about an artist that makes art in public places. It’s not about Henry Moore, where the work is about him, his ideas, his work. You can’t move it and take the content with it... "There was a tree in Seattle that a drunk leaned on and broke a bough off. Instead of taking away the tree an artist stepped forward and said ‘I think I can do something with this.’ He installed a crutch and bandages onto the structure and repaired the tree as well as making it a talking point. Now it shows a story and the story keeps being told. Instead of losing the tree and the story both are still there. It’s that idea. ‘Let’s put the tree back together, but different this time.’ Art in public has to be site specific." Mackie says that in order to avoid "Disneyfication" in the process you have to stay true to your roots. "When you make public art you have to ask yourself ‘What are the real stories of this place?’ You look at social issues, light and colour, the way the light moves through this latitude differently. There is only one geographical spot on this planet which is here — which is here." After studying art Mackie became involved in creating public works in the late ’70s. Most of the focus of his work has been taking something like a utility hut, a fence or a sound barrier wall and investing it with artistic integrity. "When you have a building that people don’t want to see they make it drab. It’s as if they’re saying ‘Don’t look at it, it’s not here, it’ll go away.’ But it won’t go away... I came out of a fine arts background and said, ‘I think I know something, I think I’ll pursue it. You have to get involved at the very beginning and say, ‘How can an artist invest this project with a different feel?’ I love it. It’s fascinating to be involved in architecture and civil engineering. I didn’t understand it at first but I watched it and it starts to overlap. You have to take into account code issues and risk management. "There is a pre-conception of artists as idiot flakes who can’t do anything. But we can learn about slip coating. We can think, work, look and learn. ‘What happens when I put this here?’ Then you consult with the civil engineers, they make sure it doesn’t fall down. We have to make partnerships." Mackie is renowned for his impassioned arguments for public art and his lively presentations. He already has 20 years experience in the "art of making places public." "He offers a wealth of visual images and experiences related to public art projects and the making of memorable public places," says public art committee member Cristiana Spooner. Mackie is also well known as the creator of the famous Dancer’s Series: Steps on Capitol Hill in Seattle which involves bronze cast shoe prints inlaid in the sidewalk in eight dance-step patterns. As an indication of its relevancy the work inspires people to engage with the scene by following the steps, either mentally or physically. Councillor Stephanie Sloan says that she found Mackie’s presentation interesting. "What I really enjoyed was one of his quotes towards the end about this being ‘the art of making places public.’ That was a really tell-tale quote. That’s what it’s all about. If it’s inviting, warm, interesting, a place that you can go and be, if it’s special you go there because it’s special, a public place. It could be a huge sculpture or a little funky detail that makes it special. Everyone should be able to enjoy their daily lives more. It’s just that little bit extra instead of just the norm. With these elements that are unusual and special public places can enhance our lives on a daily basis." Established in 1996 Whistler’s public art program is still quite young. The first major work that they put their collective mind to was the spray pool at Meadow Park. Parks planner Kevin MacFarland says he would also include some of the town’s infrastructure projects as examples of public art. "Projects like bridges and play structures at Alpha Lake Park are different," he says pointing out their intricate log work details. "We also have the Osprey sculpture by the muni and even the banner program. Then there’s Isobel MacLaurin’s Interpretive signs and other signage projects." There used to be a soapstone salmon sculpture by the Tyndall Stone Lodge but over time it was vandalised and destroyed. "The salmon was a good lesson for us all," says MacFarland. The need for people to feel there is a community ownership of art works is obvious. If instead they feel as though there is a display of wealth that excludes them the impulse will be to even out the score by destroying or stealing the piece. Last Sunday saw the official opening of the Sightlines and Glacial Traces project in Village Park East. Artists Kip Jones and Jennifer Macklem designed the Sightlines pieces on the bridge while Celine Richards worked on the Glacier Traces stone paver installation. MacFarland says that residents and visitors alike have been intrigued by the pieces on the bridge between the Town Plaza and the BrewHouse. "Village Park East is an important feature for Village North and the community as a whole," says MacFarland. "The public arts piece is integral to the plaza. Both the elements and the railing are part of the piece. This is what public art is about, the creation of an art work as part of the infrastructure. It has been effective in the way it stops people. It is a neat moment along their way." Alongside the Sightlines project is Glacier Traces. This work by Richards is concerned with linking human habitation to the landscape around us. "Celine Richard’s piece makes you aware of the environment you’re in. With Glacier Traces the bridge has patterns, flames, a kind of representation of the glacial process. The most visual element of this is in front of the BrewHouse. The white and dark paving is a representation of glacial movement." Work scheduled for next year includes the utilization of fossilized pavers and paving treatments in the fountain planned for Mountain Square. A project that saw the public involved in creating glass snowflakes to sit in the pavement will also be installed next year. MacFarland says the experience of having Mackie come up to Whistler was very positive. Apparently he feels Whistler is already well on its way with public art. While Mackie was here he took a tour of the village with municipal staff. "It’s like Jack (Mackie) said during his walkabout. He thought it was all very good. The (public art) project impressed him. In the evening he said he felt like he was preaching to the choir." Money for the artistic endeavours comes from a variety of sources explains MacFarland. "Unlike other communities a percentage for art comes out of every capital project. A certain percentage is applied. But it also depends on the project. There are also Village Enhancement funds allocated to public art. And there’s the private sector. The Chateau has been very enthusiastic. They are sponsoring a project and they are in the final stages of artist selection." Six artists will create their own marquettes in the back area of the Chateau Whistler. Each will be formed in a different style bringing a wide cross-section of artistic talent to the landscape. Another noteworthy work of art is the mural of an eagle in flight on the side of Club Intrawest. MacFarland says the impetus behind the creation of public art has far reaching benefits beyond its aesthetic appeal. "Public art is a small component of a whole cultural program. Obviously it increases cultural development and other communities have seen tangible benefits. It has even been proven in some communities to have economic benefits. I used to work in Surrey and Surrey’s public art policy was implemented for a whole range of reasons. There was economic development, social enhancement, beautification and artistic merit, so there is a full pallet of reasons. "In some communities, like big cities, there are significant neighbourhood problems. Public art is then used as a tool to improve the neighbourhood and give back ownership. That’s not necessarily the case in a community like this, but definitely in New York." Mackie strongly urged the artists in the community to get involved on planning boards and take part in the process, as well as encouraging cross-fertilization of knowledge. "You can’t have public art with just one person. It’s important he (the artist) comes out of the studio and participates in panels. You have to become a citizen artist the way there are citizen doctors or citizen bricklayers. We’re trying to get artists in on every level. The artist could never build it, but the structural engineer would never think of it. "A quality work of art has this contradiction built into it. One person turns to someone else and says, ‘You know we can do this a little differently.’ Someone has to be willing to do it. Then someone has to be willing to back it. Once you have made your commitment you have it done, then you just have to find your way. When stuff pops up like that you can’t spray it off." So are there any big projects in the future that artists could get involved in? Like an arena perhaps? "I can’t commit to that," says MacFarland. "But I definitely see it as a key development. Art will probably be part of the capital planning."