Exploring Guelph's Public Art
by Meaghan Griffin
On a foggy afternoon in December, I hit the streets of downtown Guelph armed with a map from Guelph Arts Council of our public art works. The reason? While most people understand that public art enlivens our urban landscape and highlights our heritage, it's not often that we take time out of our busy lives to step into the shoes of tourists and drink in the sites in such an intentional way. While there has been a lot of attention recently about our newest public art installation – four sculptures in the Civic Precinct by Ted Fullerton – I thought it might be nice to draw our attention back in time to celebrate a few more of the many works the City has to offer.
Interested in what I found? Follow along using this self-guided tour, or come up with a tour of your own by browsing the Culture Map.
John Galt Bust
Perhaps the most obvious place to start on a tour of this kind is at the doorstep of the beautifully re-designed Guelph City Hall. Toward the intersection of Carden and Wyndham Streets you’ll find the first stop on my tour – the bronze bust of Guelph’s founder, John Galt. Galt came to Canada as the superintendent of the Canada Company and felled a maple tree at the bend in the Speed River, just a stone’s throw away from this statue. If you look closely, you can see that Galt’s right hand is turned skyward, a symbol of his inspiration for the radial design of the future city, emanating from the site where that first maple came to rest.
Next, I headed northeast on Macdonell to find the oldest piece of public art in Guelph. Recently restored, the Blacksmith Fountain was first erected in 1885 as a tribute to industry in Guelph. The donor was J. B. Armstrong, a businessman and manufacturer who, by the 1870s, dominated much of Guelph’s industrial and civic development. Originally situated at the heart of St. George’s square, the Blacksmith has since been relocated to a quiet but significant corner of downtown, overlooking the site where John Galt’s maple fell.
Next on the tour is the Family Fountain that now anchors St. George’s Square. Though this sculpture is presently recognized as a quintessential piece of downtown Guelph, it initially caused quite a storm among several conservative religious groups who objected to the figures’ lack of clothing when it was first introduced to the public in the mid-1980s. The bronze statue depicting life-sized nudes of a nuclear family was created by unapologetic Hamilton artist William McElcheran. The funds for the piece were raised by citizens at the suggestion of the Italian-Canadian community. Moving beyond the controversy that initially shrouded this piece, it can now be appreciated as a physical representation that families are at the heart of this community. To me it is a celebration of how families have made Guelph the unique, caring and resilient community it is today.
The Glass Quilt
Through the doors and up the stairs of Old Quebec Street is where you’ll find the next piece on the tour. The Glass Quilt hangs from the ceiling above a cut-out in the upper level of the mall. The piece was made by members of the Glass Guild of Guelph to commemorate the city’s 175th anniversary, and is really a patchwork of some of our most unique attributes. Covered bridges, fields of poppies, University of Guelph’s Johnston Hall, the Church of Our Lady Immaculate (now also designated a Basilica), and even the Family Fountain are all illuminated on the quilt.
After taking a close look at some of Guelph’s most renowned public heritage and art pieces, I meandered down to the River Run Centre, where the giant copper wall by Guelph sculptor Peter Johnston is housed. This was the first time I had ever really stopped to examine this piece for any length of time, and I don’t think I can stress enough that it does not do this complex work justice to shuffle past during the intermission of a performance. This work deserves a spotlight of its own. In fact, after examining the piece for about 10 minutes, a kind staff member of the River Run Centre switched on the red spotlight specifically for that purpose. While there is much to say about this piece, perhaps the best part of it is the sense of discovery that comes with recognizing all the pieces of Guelph, present and past that become connected through this work.
Time Line/Water Line
When I could finally pull myself away from Passages, I headed along the trail of John Galt Park along the riverside to the last stop on my tour. Time Line/Water Line was a work of the millennium, created to capture the stories, images and keepsakes from Guelph’s more recent history. If Passages was a thread weaving all these pieces of history together, Time Line/Water Line is the needle searching for what’s next. The canoe, a vessel that has been synonymous with the identity of the peoples of this land since before Canada was founded, is the vessel that will carry these relics into the future. It boldly asks what the future will hold for this city, how our stories will shape it, and directs our attention back to our life source: the bend in the Speed River from which this city was created.
With ideas of future Guelph afloat in my imagination, I called up Sally Wismer, Chair of the Public Art Committee that spearheaded the Ted Fullerton commission earlier this year. When asked what’s in store for the future of public art in Guelph, she replied, “Public art enhances and animates our cityscape, and my hope is that we’ll see more works added to the public art inventory. Certainly the City’s new Public Art Advisory Committee will be working towards this end in the days and years ahead.”
A hopeful future indeed for Guelph’s public art collection.
Want to learn more about public art in Guelph?
It’s worth mentioning that there is also more public art around the city that I haven’t detailed here - both within and outside of the downtown core. You might want to check out the great Donald Forster Sculpture Park at Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, or the monuments at the Woodlawn Cemetery and Riverside Park, as well as some hidden treasures such as alleyway murals and privately owned sculptures on the lawns of artists and art lovers.
In the warmer months, the Guelph Arts Council also offers Historical Walking Tours of Guelph, and these often include some of Guelph's public art treasures. Stay tuned for more details on these in spring 2015.