If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s never more apparent than when public art is installed on city property. The City of Chilliwack’s recent installation of Ron Simmer’s Giant Flowers in the Evans roundabout may have taken several months to come to fruition, but within minutes of fitting the final flower into place, the colourful bouquet was achieving exactly what it was designed to do: adhere to road engineering best practices and inspire conversation within the community.
What’s public art?
“Public art is art in public places,” explained local artist Sylvie Roussel-Janssens, who’s had several of her pieces installed publicly around town. “It can be very small or very big in terms of scale, content and budget.
“It’s important for stories about the community to be out there in the visual art form. There’s the music scene, visual arts in private spaces, but art in the public sphere is important to beautify the community (and) also to tell the concerns of the people from within the community.”
With that in mind, public art isn’t a fine arts genre as much as it’s a visual conversation between the artist and the environment around them; placed in public areas, this artwork is designed to create discourse and, if used correctly, can better the quality of life within the community.
And while it is public, it’s still art, which is innately subjective. Our communities are far too diverse for every piece to appeal to everybody, however, regardless if it’s with affection or animosity, public art attracts attention.
Seen in Chilliwack
Four years ago, the City of Chilliwack began diligently increasing the amount of public art within the community, including the establishment of a Chilliwack Public Art Policy (CPAP) as part of the objectives set out in its 2014 Official Community Plan update.
Chilliwack city councillor Sue Attrill heads the Chilliwack Public Art Advisory Committee (CPAAC), which states on its website, “public art has the power to energize and enhance our public spaces, make us think, and transform where we live, work and play.”
When it comes to public art, “we always have to consider how it’ll work in the elements,” said Attrill. “But (we’ll look at putting art) anywhere where there is city property that we feel would benefit from public art.”
“City council as a whole selected the flowers because they felt it was the most reflective of Chilliwack and pleasing to the people,” said Attrill about the Evans roundabout art installation.
“I’ve heard from hundreds who love it, (but) council is also getting both sides of the response,” Attrill added.
“But the one thing with art, it is very subjective,” continued Attrill. “I’m hoping that over time people will really come to like (the Giant Flowers).
With its municipal roots going back to the middle of the 19th century, Chilliwack is one of the oldest communities in the province, but unlike many of its counterparts, incorporating public art is a relatively new element in its city planning.
And while most of their projects have been met with appreciation and enjoyment, CPAAC’s latest addition has ignited a cacophony of commentary on social media.
That’s how it works, said Simmer, who submitted the initial design.“Everywhere you install public art there will be discussion on whether or not people like it. When you build a big public art structure like this, you’re reinventing the wheel and doing things that may not have been done before; each flower weighs over 1,500 lbs and is built to stand hurricane-force winds.
“Sometimes people fall in love with it or they sometimes hate it,” continued Simmer, whose public art installation in Portland was vandalized. “You just never know (because) there’s various ways of making and interpreting art.”
And it’s within those artistic interpretations that vulnerability is born said Roussel-Janssens. “We need sensitivity to do what we do, but it makes (us) vulnerable.”
Which Simmer seems to understand: although he was “delighted and very enthusiastic” to learn about his commission, now that it’s finished, he’s only read the feedback on his personal Facebook page.
“I don’t know what’s going on in Chilliwack,” said Simmer honestly. “But I hope people like it, what’s not to like about flowers?”
As the final pieces of the installation were lowered into place, Chilliwack’s citizens took to social media to post photos and offer their critiques without regard. And while many argued its purpose and necessity, not everyone was critical.
“I feel bad for the artist who has to see these comments,” wrote Tiva Gallant to naysayers on a Chilliwack Progress Facebook post about the flower installation. “I honestly am looking forward to seeing them lit up! I can’t stand the roundabout itself due to lousy drivers, but other than that, why complain?”
Perhaps unwittingly, Gallant may have stumbled onto the reason why Giant Flowers sparked so much discord: it’s not what it is, but where it is.
“People don’t like roundabouts to begin with,” said Attrill. “They have different views on them and whether they should have stuff in them, (but) research shows there should be stuff in there.
“And I thank the community for giving their opinion either way,” she continued. “It gives us a lot to think about for future projects, but the whole idea of art is to create reaction.”
Which is exactly what Giant Flowers did: within a few hours of its completion, it evoked conversations that spanned the upcoming municipal election, homelessness, addiction problems, the definition of art, other artists, and roundabout safety to name a few.
So while Chilliwack’s latest public art installation may not be the city’s favourite, it may be the most successful.