Provocative new sculptures speak to the power and connectivity of public art

“The Passenger,” initial concept far left, followed by close-ups flanking finished sculpture
“The Passenger,” initial concept far left, followed by close-ups flanking finished sculpture
Brandon Vickerd
Brandon Vickerd

York University Professor Brandon Vickerd, a sculptor in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD), continues to make his mark on the Canadian landscape – both literally and figuratively. Three compelling new public art pieces prove this point: Dwell, installed in Ottawa in 2018; Wolfe and the Sparrows, slated for next month in Calgary; and The Passenger, which will be installed in Waterloo, Ont., in September.

All three commissioned works draw viewers in with highly enigmatic content gleaned from Vickerd’s immersion in the various communities. More than anything, his work is a profound and poetic statement about our connectedness and our relationship to history.

“My sculptures straddle the line between high and low culture and act as catalysts for critical thought. I want to provoke the viewer into questioning the dominant myth of progress ingrained in Western world views,” he explains.

Dwell – a quintessential community engagement project

Dwell, part of the Imagined Monuments public artwork project for Greenbank Road, was commissioned by the City of Ottawa, designed in 2017, then created and installed in 2018.

Preliminary rendering of “Dwell” (left) and photos of installed sculpture
Preliminary rendering of Dwell (left) and photos of installed sculpture

In this piece, Vickerd wanted to explore the narrative of and social cohesion in Barrhaven, a rapidly growing neighbourhood in southwest Ottawa. He sought to build a structure that assigned meaning to its history and existence. To do this, he spent five months in the community as an artist-in-residence and conducted numerous consultations, including workshops at the local library and opportunities where seniors could share stories about local history. In fact, Vickerd received more than 30 stories from the community, and held more than 20 in-person interviews and five telephone interviews with prominent Barrhaven residents.

Old Barnett farmhouse, inspiration for “Dwell”
Old Barnett farmhouse, inspiration for Dwell

A tribute to Barrhaven’s history, Dwell is a steel representation of the 1818 Barnett farmhouse that was destroyed to make room for suburban growth. It stands 40 feet above the ground, like a sentinel, visible from great distances. It transforms the ordinary form of an old house into something extraordinary, marking both the site and a moment in time; it is a striking metaphor for our relationship with history.

This piece is grand but entirely accessible. “Dwell is about connecting to people, their sense of place and their capacity to change,” Vickerd explains. “High in the sky above the community, it asserts the true core of Barrhaven: the notion of home.”

Wolfe and the Sparrows compels viewers to revisit Canada’s colonial past

Next month, Wolfe and the Sparrows, commissioned by the City of Calgary, will be installed as part of the 12th Street S. E. Bridge Public Art Project. It is based on a statue of James Wolfe, a British Army officer known for his 1759 victory over the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec.

At a distance, this bronze piece will look like a standard wartime or political monument set in a high-traffic location in a park on a pedestal. But upon closer inspection, viewers will see that a flock of sparrows dramatically erupts from the collar of the figure.

“Wolfe and the Sparrows,” preliminary drawings and final sculpture
Wolfe and the Sparrows: preliminary drawings and final sculpture

Why sparrows? “Turns out, house sparrows are an invasive species in North America,” Vickerd explains. “They were brought to Brooklyn in the 1800s by a British bird enthusiast. So sparrows made sense in the context of colonial discourse. When the sculpture is installed, the birds will be flying in the direction of England.”

Given that traditional statues of white, European men reinforce the mythology of colonialism, this political work turns history on its head and invites audiences into a discussion about authority, monuments and Canada’s colonial past. “This sculpture uses the aesthetic language of traditional statuary to actively subvert and destabilize the authority of the dominant culture’s public monuments,” Vickerd explains.

This piece perfectly exemplifies how contemporary society is critically assessing these so-called heroes – the heated debate over John A. Macdonald statues is a prime example. Vickerd believes the timing is right. “Given our nation’s 150th anniversary and the recent findings of the Indian Residential School Truth & Reconciliation Committee, this is an ideal time to question the role of the monument in narratives about our colonial past,” he says.

Public consultation was again embedded in Vickerd’s process. He engaged in conversations with area citizens through workshops and other research processes, and gleaned an idea of the essential components to the piece – primarily, the relationship between the site and First Nations people, and the idea that the artwork should address a sense of history and challenge audiences by being conceptually rigorous.

Humorous and intriguing, The Passenger invites reflection of our relationship to nature

The Passenger, commissioned by the City of Waterloo for the ION Rapid Transit Public Art Project, will be installed in September.

“The Passenger,” initial concept far left, followed by close-ups flanking finished sculpture
The Passenger: initial concept far left, followed by close-ups flanking finished sculpture

Situated on a pedestrian walkway at the R+T Park ION Station transit stop, at first glance this bronze sculpture will look like an average commuter on his daily trek to the office. But on closer inspection, audiences will realize that the piece is a curious compilation of lifelike animals (based on taxidermy models) – squirrels, a raccoon, an owl, a turtle, a duck and a salamander – that are bursting out of the shell of a man.

This piece inspires reflection on our relationship with nature in a witty and captivating fashion. “Shifting from normal to surreal, the work has an uneasy quality,” Vickerd explains. “It shows the extraordinary possibilities beneath the mundane we take for granted.”

Again, community consultation was key. In selecting which animals to feature, Vickerd reached out to local experts ranging from those in the University of Waterloo’s Ecology Lab to the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited. He also spent hours observing commuters to ensure that the attire was spot on: dress shoes, slacks, a button-up shirt (no tie) and a light jacket.

Vickerd’s new commissioned pieces – each challenging in their own way – make a strong statement on the power and connectivity of public art.

To watch a video about Dwell, see YouTube. To learn more about Vickerd, visit his faculty profile page or his website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,