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The Essential Public Spaces of Evergreen’s Curator of the Public Art Program

Charlene K. Lau shares these examples of how art can keep public space accessible to all. 

High Line NYC art Image: thehighline.org
Image: thehighline.org

Published on July 05, 2022

Public space should be accessible and enjoyable for everyone – and few things invigorate spaces like public art. 

In our ongoing Essential Public Spaces series, we’re chatting with city-building leaders about the public spaces that are meaningful to them. This month, we spoke to the Curator of the Evergreen Public Art Program, Charlene K. Lau. 

“Art should not be limited to the walls of a museum or gallery; rather art should be free and accessible to the public and can greatly enhance our enjoyment of the rich cultural landscapes of our cities,” she says. 

Art should be free and accessible to the public and can greatly enhance our enjoyment of the rich cultural landscapes of our cities.
Charlene K. Lau

In addition to vitalizing the built environment, Lau points out that public art can help keep spaces safe by bringing people together from all walks of life. Activist Jane Jacobs wrote that for a street to be a safe place, "there must be eyes upon the street”. 

“Unfortunately, public space doesn’t always feel like it’s for everyone because of systemic issues related to race, class, gender, and accessibility,” Lau says. “My hope is that public art can bring out communities who do not normally feel safe in certain spaces.”

Here are Lau’s five essential public spaces that feature public art.

A picture Petrogylphs Provincial Park Teaching Rocks

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodview, Ontario

“When I remember back to my early childhood experiences of public art, I think about a visit with my family to Petroglyphs Provincial Park in Woodview, Ontario, the site of the largest known group of Indigenous rock carvings in Canada. Known as “teaching rocks,” the petroglyphs are thought to be carved by Algonquian or Iroquoian peoples. Over a thousand turtles, snakes, birds, human figures, and symbols were etched between 600 and 1100 years ago into a long stretch of marble. There is so much to learn from this early example of Indigenous public art, where an imprint on the landscape can be made without taking from it.”

A picture of Speaking to Their Mother, 1991, Rebecca Belmore in Banff National Park

Banff National Park: Rebecca Belmore, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991

“Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore made this over two metre-long, wooden and animal-hide megaphone as a response to the 1990 Oka Crisis, a protest by Kanienʼkehá꞉ka peoples (Mohawk) against a golf course development on their land that turned violent upon police intervention. Carried by a procession of 60 people throughout Banff National Park, the artwork amplified the voices of Indigenous leaders, poets and artists as they spoke to the land. While the work came to being while Belmore was an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre, the megaphone has travelled to many sites around Canada and the United States.”

A picture of Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth

Trafalgar Square, London, United Kingdom: Fourth Plinth

The Fourth Plinth is one of my favourite commissioning entities; originally meant to hold a statue of equestrian statue of William IV, the plinth was vacant until the inception of the current public art program in 1993. Today, the plinth holds some of the most wacky, critical and interesting sculptures by contemporary artists working today including Yinka Shonibare’s scale (1:30) replica of HMS Victory with Dutch wax fabric sails Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010); and David Shrigley’s big bronze thumbs-up Really Good (2016). This public square is charged with the many complicated, political realities that co-exist in our world alongside great joy and beauty.”

A picture of Public art along NYC High Line

High Line, New York City 

The High Line in New York City is not only a popular tourist destination and park for locals, it is also the site for challenging works of art in the public realm. For me, what is super interesting about this space is that the curators work with all types of artworks from traditional forms like sculpture and photography, to more ephemeral work like performance. A public park can be a site of leisure and recreation, but also generate big ideas that we must remain open to if we want to make the future a better place for everyone.”

A picture of Rita Letendre's Sunrise

Evergreen Brick Works: Rita Letendre, Sunrise, 1971/2021

“This huge mural was Métis artist Rita Letendre’s largest ever work. At over 18 by 18 metres, the work was originally installed in 1971 on the outside wall of the Neill-Wycik building at Ryerson University, near the intersection of Gerrard and Church Streets. While it no longer exists at this site, the 2021 replication of the mural by Métis artist Tannis Nielsen at Evergreen Brick Works serves as a monument to Letendre’s legacy as one of Canada’s most important, ground-breaking painters. Taken together with Nielsen’s response mural Ishkode (2021), Nielsen describes Letendre’s painting as a land acknowledgement that reminds us to respect the land.”

Read more about Evergreen’s current and upcoming public art projects.