Hugo Franca’s Placemaker on the Esplanade

My daughter and kitty, Sparrow, both appreciate the views they have from this elevated position.
My daughter and kitty, Sparrow, both appreciate the views they have from this elevated position.

If you’ve ever heard the term “place-making”, you’ll recognize that this is a process that is in full swing in New Westminster. The careful redesigning of public space in our little city offers opportunities to actively participate in a dynamic growing culture and history, simply by getting out and walking the streets and riverfront.

An example of this redesign is the commitment New Westminster has made to public art in the recent past with the introduction of a Public Art Policy and the PAAC (Public Art Advisory Committee) which I am happy to sit on this year. It appears that the city’s position on making Public Art an objective really recognizes the way it reinvigorates and humanizes our public places.

Our participation in the 2014-2016 Vancouver Biennale is a recent and exciting example of this objective. Despite its many controversies, the value of this exhibition has now begun to manifest itself with the temporary installation of Hugo Franca’s Public Furniture/Urban Trees, a large chair fashioned from a tree root scavenged from the leftovers of some coastal deforestation. This is the first and most tame of three expected sculptural installations in the Open Borders/Crossroads Vancouver exhibition, which was unveiled along the Esplanade at the end of May. It is now populated by loungers, climbing children, and people enjoying the character it brings to this private end of the walkway.

Artworks such as this are accessible to most people: it can be touched and used in most ways that may come to mind, by most individuals. On a walk with my 20-month-old daughter and cat (yes, I walk my cat!), I found two elderly visitors practicing tai chi alongside the sculpture as a young boy and his father explored its surface.

Franca’s sculpture is in a familiar space and is recognizable in its material and form; it is not intimidating. From behind, we see it close to its original form, and it lets us see beyond the paved Esplanade to the natural shore of the Fraser. Walking around to the front, the bench invites us to sit and observe the rushing water.

In one way or another, artworks such as this sensitize us to our space and help us view the familiar with fresh eyes. They also make it acceptable to spend time lingering in a public place where we can really enjoy its value.

In the case of Franca’s waterfront installation, the sculptural form of the chair and its relationship to the log booms that are typically viewed floating on the river might give us an opportunity to consider how we as a community and as individuals participate in a historic and ongoing intensive use of our local resources.

However you view it or use it, this simple bench created from a root is one step in a new move toward making contemporary public art a defining feature in New Westminster. Have you visited it yet?