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Iridescent Towers by Nate Nettleton. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Public art at Zibi: A virtual residency explores the many narratives

By Susan Johnston on September 29, 2020

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“Placemaking is engaging in the story of a site and being able to hold the tension. How can artists engage with that in a meaningful way?”

—Hima Batavia, Artscape

What to do with a salvaged cast-iron pulper from Ottawa’s lumber days? Abstract sculptor Noah Scheinman proposes to disassemble it and create a piece reflecting an archipelago, mimicking the cluster of islands in and around the Chaudière Falls, and integrating a garden.

Scheinman is one among a group of eight participants in a public art co-design residency that took place this summer, facilitated by Ottawa artist Brendan de Montigny on behalf of Artscape Atelier, to develop options for the Zibi site. “My proposal ended up being literally made of that particular landscape and that contentious history,” says Scheinman.

Timber Limits by Noah Scheinmann. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What inspired the residency? Hima Batavia, Director of the Creative Placemaking Lab at Artscape, says the spark followed on an earlier (pre-COVID) invitation for artists to visit the site and explore ways of integrating public art in new ways. While an in-situ residency was planned, they quickly pivoted. Batavia says “The first intention was to respond to the pandemic, and to create an opportunity for artists who would apply to the residency to have a paid and engaging opportunity.” Batavia worked closely with de Montigny to realize the second objective: “To create a space that would allow folks to really connect with the site from different dimensions: historical and political, Indigenous perspectives, and industrial history.” Batavia adds that they wanted to “really try to cover all the different angles, and allow the artists to engage with the narrative, to have critique around it, and to find the part of the site that really spoke to them.”

Eight artists, working in many disciplines, participated in the residency, including Naomi Blondin, John Felice Ceprano, Mélodie Coutou, Dominic Lafontaine, Nate Nettleton, Noah Scheinman, Ryan Stec, and Remco Volmer. The artists took part in a virtual immersion and co-design process designed to explore the site’s Indigenous, industrial, and environmental histories. Invited guests shared artistic and Indigenous perspectives to help the artists integrate “considerations of the nuanced histories, the politics, and state-of-play” into their conceptual work. Bead artist and educator Christina Ruddy also worked with the group to create a space to respond to their questions about Indigenous language and culture.

Public art can be an exceptional tool for education and dialogue. Says de Montigny, “One of the most important actions that artists can take in their practice is to look critically at the materiality of their own concepts and to where the artwork will be exhibited, and then also think about it as being in play with, being a litmus test towards, whatever is happening within our culture, has happened in the past, or might happen in the future.” The residency was designed “to unpack all of that in a very nuanced way, to give the opportunity for eight talking heads on a Zoom call to be able to each have their time and space to be able to articulate those thoughts.” While the initial design included an intention for artists to collaborate across disciplines, de Montigny notes the challenges in realizing this in a virtual environment. “There is a level of relationship and trust that needs to build, and 10 weeks is quite a rapid turnaround time,” he says, though he adds that a collaboration did start to emerge at the tail end of the residency.

The residency was designed to unpack all of that in a very nuanced way, to give the opportunity for eight talking heads on a Zoom call to be able to each have their time and space to be able to articulate those thoughts.

In that case, Aylmer sculptor Nate Nettleton proposed a set of “six circular and semi-circular lenticular shapes, to install across Chaudière Island as sun-shaped way-finding pieces, meant to guide visitors towards either the sunrise or the sunset.” Nettleton characterizes the lenticular material as “a technology that allows you to fuse multiple images together onto one surface. Depending upon which angle you view the artwork from, will depend on which image or design that you see.” In terms of visualizing his the concept, Nettleton notes that the sculptures will “have warm colour gradients that are increasing or decreasing as you’re walking past, representing the sunset or sunrise, paired with single-word text pieces which transition between the indigenous Algonquin language, English, and French.” According to Nettleton, the words “were chosen based on conversations that I was lucky to have about historical significance and cultural practices, which are tied to the rising and setting sun. The words and designs are meant to be like a launching point for education and further discussion around these things.”

Iridescent Towers by Nate Nettleton. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nettleton credits his collaboration with Christina Ruddy: “The initial concept for this artwork was developed by the Algonquin community members and the Memengweshii Council. With a lot of guidance and support from Christina, I proposed some creative direction, which turned into the lenticular sun-shaped sculptures.” Ruddy says of its importance to making Algonquin iconography more visible, “It’s something that’s always going to be there. It helps us feel heard and seen.”

Key to the project was supporting artists, including those whose work is more emerging, by offering a more supported, accessible, public art development process. As a result, de Montigny says, “We’re getting a lot more nuanced, unique, voices who didn’t necessarily have the platform to speak to the public in that way, which I believe is going to result in some really fresh public artwork on the Zibi islands.”

The residency culminated in August, when the artists presented their concepts to a jury composed of executives from Zibi and Artscape Atelier, plus Christina Ruddy (Memingweshi Council), Marisa Gallemit (artist), and Jason St-Laurent (Curator of SAW Gallery). Noah Scheinman’s proposal to reimagine the pulper, Nate Nettleton’s sun shape sculptures, and Dominic Lafontaine’s pop-art sculpture will go into production.

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