Arts & culture

How public art connects me to Toronto’s history

In our latest guest writer post, art curator and writer Katie Lawson talks about the power of public art.

Published on August 16, 2023


Public art enriches our community spaces. It invigorates places, amplifies diverse voices and sparks curiosity and learning experiences.


Evergreen is inviting guest writers to share their perspectives on the value of community spaces, and how elements like public art contribute so much to the richness of our public domain.


The series continues with Katie Lawson, a curator and writer based in Toronto. She was recently a curator for the Toronto Biennial of Art, and is currently working towards a PhD in Art and Visual Culture at Western University, with an interest in contemporary art and climate change.


Katie Lawson headshot


I’m coming up on ten years of living in Toronto, after a dizzying sequence of moves around the United States and southern Ontario. I found myself in drastically different landscapes, from the Pacific coast of Oregon to the mangrove forests of southern Florida. I also developed a habit of orienting towards the nearest body of water as a means of grounding in a new place. As a ubiquitous element on our blue planet, being by water provided a feeling of familiarity.


When I first came to the Great Lakes region, I struggled with feeling disconnected from nearby Lake Ontario. My relationship with the city developed slowly as I learned about the drastic and ongoing transformation of local water systems.


As a curator, the changing shape of Toronto’s waterways became a research focus that leaked into my conversations with contemporary artists. I became interested in the potential of public art to lead others to develop deeper connections with place.


Igniting interest through artistic expression


I believe art can spark greater curiosity about our surroundings, particularly when it is integrated in public space. Public art continues to expand to include a wide range of perspectives, scales, and mediums. At its best, I believe it’s a form of creative expression that informs our understanding of place and shapes collective memory.


In 2019, I was involved with the production of a compelling example of public art connecting us to place. As a part of a collaboration between the Toronto Biennial of Art and Evergreen, I had the opportunity to work with artist Maria Thereza Alves to develop a temporary public art project that would respond to the lesser-known histories of Toronto’s watersheds.


In the last two hundred years, rapid urban development has transformed the city’s rivers and shoreline. Wetlands and tributaries are drained or infill is introduced to provide space for residential, industrial and commercial growth.



“At its best, I believe [public art] is a form of creative expression that informs our understanding of place and shapes collective memory.”



Given Maria Thereza’s previous work on water, environmental degradation and patterns of colonial settlement, we introduced her to Lost Rivers. Since 1995, the community organization has lead a series of public walks that encourage residents to rediscover Toronto’s lost and buried rivers. It is a city that continues to shift before our very eyes.


Research for the commission began with a series of walks along the former pathways of the Don River and other trails. We observed subtle clues in the natural and built environment that mark the former course of forgotten tributaries and streams — from the slump of a sinking home built on what was once a creek to the old willows along the basin of a grassy park that indicate the former bank of a buried river.


Maria Thereza became particularly invested in the Lower Don River, which has been subject to an array of large-scale transformations. It is a site that is ripe for environmental historians — as a part of the so-called Don Improvement Plan of 1886, the Lower Don River was forcibly straightened, diverting the mouth of this Lake Ontario tributary into the newly dredged Keating Channel. The project ultimately failed, and pollution of the watershed would continue unabated through the twentieth century, with worsened flooding and further development.


public art exhibit, panels on grass in a winding pattern
Phantom Pain, from artist Maria Thereza Alves.


A memorial for lost rivers


Riverdale Park West sits in the heart of the Lower Don River, a site where the straightening of the tributary was most severe. This is where Maria Thereza Alves felt compelled to install a temporary public artwork, a subtle intervention in the park that would act as a memorial for the loss of a past landscape. The evocative title Phantom Pain calls to mind the troubling, treatment-resistance sensations in human patients who have experienced the loss of a limb. The Don River was effectively amputated, and Riverdale Park West becomes reinscribed as a site of bodily trauma, one that continues to send signals through the nervous system of the city.


The artist installed a series of five steel forms that sat flush with the park’s grass, a compressed and fragmented rendering of the river’s former winding path. From certain angles, the work almost completely disappears, but when a passerby is within close range, the reflective surface of the work catches the hue of the sky above and for a moment the once shimmering surface of water returns to this radically altered site. While chosen for its perceptual effects, steel appealed as a material that would be easily recycled once the 2019 Biennial came to a close, moreover working as a modest scale that would not require extensive site remediation once the work was removed.


While its presence in the park may have been temporary, this is an artwork I still think of nearly four years later. It connected to me to Toronto and helped orient me to water in a whole new way, recognizing its presence even when it is seemingly absent. When I return to Riverdale Park West, I can read the landscape in a new way, and see the former path of the Don in my mind’s eye. I see it differently.


Public art is one way that our communities can maintain connection to and understanding of place, encouraging us to remain curious about the past, present and future.

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