Opinion to the Editor
by Henri Garand
The controversy over Holding Court, Picton’s statue of John A. Macdonald, must be examined in historical, aesthetic, and economic as well as political contexts:
1. The statue is linked to a specific time in Picton’s history and Macdonald’s life unrelated to his later political career.
2. The statue is unique sidewalk sculpture that arouses interest and encourages public interaction. It was intended to please, not anger or divide viewers.
3. The location outside the library and near the Regent Theatre maximizes its visibility and value in the tourist economy. If relocated, it would still have to be protected from potential vandalism.
4. Though Macdonald’s later political actions are extrinsic to the focus and meaning of the statue, an accompanying explanatory plaque and/or display inside the library could address matters of Truth and Reconciliation.
5. The statue does not have to be removed or relocated; if necessary, it can be repurposed on site. Text for a new plaque is proposed.
The Macdonald Statue Controversy: Reconciling Art and History
The controversy over Picton’s statue of John A. Macdonald involves a multi-faceted debate over public art and Canada’s historical record. It’s a shame that a sculptural gift to the County has entangled council and residents in dispute and divisiveness. But perhaps there is a way for art to triumph over politics. Before considering possible solutions, however, I think we have to understand the Macdonald statue in three contexts: local history, public art, and historical revisionism.
The Holding Court statue was originally proposed as depicting a specific incident on October 8, 1834, when the 19-year-old Macdonald successfully defended himself in Picton’s courthouse. According to the Macdonald Project website, the trial “marks the moment when John A. came of age and started his career in law.” Recently, the reality of this event has been questioned. But even if the inspiration for Holding Court is unfounded, the image of Macdonald standing beside a prisoner’s dock is an appropriate depiction for his local legal career. It’s indisputable that between 1833 and 1837 Macdonald studied and practiced law, as well as married, in Picton before relocating to begin his political career in Kingston. This early association confers a special significance on the town of Picton. No other small Canadian town can claim a similar connection with Macdonald.
Sculptor Ruth Abernethy’s statue of Macdonald is a fine piece of public art. As sidewalk art it engages viewers at eye level and encourages interaction. Tourists sometimes pose for photographs next to the statue or in the prisoner’s dock. At the very least it arouses curiosity and invites inquiry into the meaning of the scene depicted. The representational image is not of a dignified senior politician but of a seemingly ordinary fellow, though in old-fashioned dress.
Undoubtedly, the statue would not exist without Macdonald’s becoming Prime Minister and it was commissioned to mark his 200th birthday, but neither would it exist without his early life in Picton. The statue is not a conventional tribute to a Great Man; it is a vivid pictorial rendering of a scene in court, regardless of whether the scene is specific or generic. One cannot see this unique piece of sidewalk art without wondering what it depicts. The presence of the prisoner’s dock makes all the difference.
Macdonald is depicted not on a pedestal high above the heads of viewers. He is not astride a horse and carrying a sword. Nor does he stand strong despite age and the winds of change. The iconography is not heroic. The image, like a snapshot of the past, encourages us to see Macdonald not as symbol but as his young self. At its most obvious, the statue functions exclusively in terms of Picton’s pioneer history, the equivalent of an American sign reading “Washington slept here”. Of course, a viewer can recoil in dismay upon recognizing the personage as Macdonald, but that is a reaction outside the literal representation of an earlier time.
Despite its limited sphere of artistic and historical reality, the Macdonald statue has been caught up in social change and revisionist assessment. The dispute polarizes those who defend Macdonald as a man of his time and those who denounce his acts as reprehensible whether or not he knew it. The historical background of the statue cannot therefore be isolated from current Canadian values.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has shone a spotlight on many truths about Macdonald’s political career. Bud does it reflect the only truth about his life? If he is responsible for the discrimination and violence suffered by indigenous people, Chinese immigrants, and other minorities, then he must also be seen as responsible for helping to found the nation of Canada and building a railroad that preserved it from American expansionism. Current Canadian citizens still benefit from those achievements, though we are also the heirs of Macdonald’s misdeeds and must continue to address their remediation.
Given its early historical focus, should the Macdonald statue bear the weight of all his political baggage? Since it does not honor Macdonald’s whole career, should it be condemned because of the stain of retrospective guilt?
Removal or Relocation
The present location of the statue outside the Picton library has made it an object for protest and vandalism. But the potential for further vandalism should not figure in council’s deciding where to locate the statue. Vandalism can take place anywhere, and mitigation can only reduce its incidence and severity. Outside the library the simple, least intrusive protection is video surveillance to discourage vandals and to help apprehend them.
More importantly, concerns over vandalism should not override the decision making. Vandals do not express a community consensus and must not be given a de facto veto on display of the statue. The broad public consultation process must be respected, and any decision must be based upon sound reasoning, not fears of backlash by some members of the community.
Moving the statue off Main Street to a site with less pedestrian traffic, such as the grounds of Shire Hall or the courthouse, is at odds with the design of a sidewalk sculpture and would not maintain the artistic experience. Though the courthouse may provide a close association with Macdonald’s legal practice, both it and Shire Hall would reduce the number of viewers and diminish the role of the statue in the tourist economy. (For what it’s worth, the statue appears on a Tripadvisor list of county attractions.) Relocation, like complete removal, is just a convenient means of disposing of a political problem.
Moreover, how does removing the Macdonald statue facilitate understanding of the past? All art reflects the age and culture in which it was produced and is often contaminated, to some extent, by past social practices and values. To preserve it we have to think beyond the present. The meaning of public bronze and stone statuary changes, and the importance can even disappear with time. But as long as the statues remain intact they recall the heritage and history of those who inherited them. Their removal does not leave behind a lasting lesson; it leaves merely a void to be filled by misinformation and ignorance.
If the Macdonald statue is to be preserved and rehabilitated, then it is already ideally located near the library, which houses so many County memories and accommodates other tarnished reputations. A permanent display inside the library could recount Macdonald’s life after he left Picton, and explain his contentious legacy.
The content, placement, and size of an accompanying plaque are more problematic. A plaque should not overwhelm the statue with historical detail and interpretation which turn this charming and curious piece of public art into a dark history lesson, an object of shame instead of pride. An interpretive plaque that dwells chiefly on Macdonald’s later career is likely to spoil any viewer’s initial aesthetic pleasure, rather like castor oil after a taste of sugar.
The text on the plaque must also balance the perspectives of both those who admire Macdonald and those who revile him. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task to find the right phrasing and emphasis because the aim cannot be to transform Macdonald from Canadian hero into villain. That simply shows disrespect for one group in order to please another. The text should help to resolve differences as well as amend history. It’s a matter, as in all art, of proportion.
With great hesitancy, I suggest a factually-based inscription along these lines:
Holding Court depicts the young John A. Macdonald (1815-91) in Picton, where he studied and practiced law between 1833 and 1837. Sculptor Ruth Abernethy shows him standing beside a prisoner’s dock in Picton’s courthouse. Thirty years after leaving Picton to pursue a political career, Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister, and many years later he was responsible for government policies harmful to Indigenous people and immigrant minorities. Commissioned, funded, and erected by the local Macdonald Project, the statue marks an early time in Picton’s pioneer heritage.
The controversy over the Macdonald statue requires a careful decision by council and its mature acceptance by county residents and all interested parties. Then at least three principles in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report will be partially met:
1. Public truth sharing, apology, and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.
2. Responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.
3. Sustained public education and dialogue.
When serving these new purposes, surely the Macdonald statue should remain where it enhances both residents’ and visitors’ experience of Picton. Then it will show how art can aid in reconciling everyone with history.
About the Author:
Indigenous art set to soar on Gordie Howe International Bridge project – CBC.ca
Indigenous artists and a project co-ordinator who created massive artworks set to adorn the Canadian-side tower of the Gordie Howe International Bridge say they hope their work represents more than just artistic beauty.
Several enormous paintings created by three artists — Teresa Altiman and Daisy White of Walpole Island First Nation, and Naomi Peters of Caldwell First Nation — will rise into the air up to 220 metres as the tower on this side of the border is constructed. The bridge company approached Paul White of Walpole Island First Nation to coordinate the effort.
White said his hope is that when people see these works, they’ll ask themselves the tough questions that may lead to education and healing.
“And through those answers they gain an understanding of the artists as Native people, and Native people in general, and the messages Native people are trying to convey through their art,” said White.
“[It’s] A way of really increasing the understanding between all the peoples of Canada and the United States too, and it’s just there is no better way to display it or describe it.”
The artworks have now been installed, and the rise will be slow as construction on the tower begins. Once construction is over, the artworks will be repurposed in some way, say bridge company officials.
For her part, Peters painted a picture of a hoop dancer that is five metres by seven metres.
“I dedicated over a week to it, and I was working day to night,” she told CBC’s Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre.
“I’ve done a lot of larger canvas work. When I was young, my dad used to paint walls, and he taught me how to do it properly, so I had a little bit of a handle on it, but it really was a new experience, especially seeing those large panels. Holding them up, like you needed two people to even move them around.”
As with each of the artworks and the intricate details they include, Peters’ hoop dancer has great meaning behind it.
“I knew I wanted to do something that represented a lot of different tribes … Originally I was going to do something from my Pottawatomie heritage, like the grass dance or something, but I realized that would be a bit non-inclusive for other tribes,” she said.
“So the hoop dance is something that a lot of tribes can participate in and people who are even non-Indigenous are allowed to participate in without any kind of decorum … I just wanted to show you something that everyone could enjoy.”
LISTEN | Hear more from Peters about how she created her work and what it means to her:
Afternoon Drive7:04Indigenous artists featured on Gordie Howe International Bridge project
The painting process took place at an arena near Walpole Island First Nation, and White’s construction team helped the three female artists with the big undertaking.
Workers traced sketches as outlines and even helped with some of the painting, which Altiman, who is 72-years-old, said she greatly appreciated.
Altiman’s painting of a bear and three cubs — white, red, black and yellow — are sacred colours to the Ojibway people, she said.
“For me, I was hoping that our art that we had on the bridge would be a teaching tool, that we are teaching people a little bit about who we are as a First Nation people, as Indigenous people,” she said.
“And so the four colours are telling you something. They’re telling you that these are all the colours of the people of the world.”
Altiman also emphasizes how important it was that her fellow contributors are young women.
“I think it is really phenomenal that this is happening for them as young artists, and certainly for myself as an older artist. I mean, I am honoured that this is happening and that my work is going to be shown in such a prominent location.”
Art is good medicine in these trying times – ThePeterboroughExaminer.com
The pandemic has placed unique stresses on our community, with economic anxiety — combined with worry for the well-being of loved ones — affecting our collective mental health. That’s why it’s important to remember that Peterborough has always had the arts to bring us together. For years, artists, art therapists, and community organizations in Peterborough have worked with the shared understanding that the arts can have a beneficial effect on our mental health.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve been part of a number of art projects that engage with community members,” says John Marris, a community artist and consultant based in Peterborough. “Particularly those who face marginalization through poverty, disability and mental illness.”
Over the years — and to this day — a number of local artists in Peterborough have been involved in projects at The Mount Community Centre, the Youth Emergency Shelter (YES), Peterborough Regional Health Centre, and the Abbey Retreat Centre cancer care facility — to name only a few.
“There are many local artists involved in these projects,” says Brian Nichols, a Peterborough-based artist and psychotherapist who uses art therapy in his practice. “We don’t teach artmaking — we explore possibilities with folks who attend. It’s usually not possible to discern who is the ‘teacher’ and who is the ‘student.’ We’re all in it together, and that’s the fun of it.”
Prior to COVID-19, the open studios program at The Mount Community Centre had between 20 and 30 participants each week. Now, the program is limited to eight people who must register to attend, and must be residents at The Mount.
“Brian and I have just completed a six-week program of weekly art making sessions at The Mount for Mount residents,” says Marris. “Historically, before COVID-19, Brian was facilitating a roster of artists working in sessions that were open to the whole community to drop in and make art. This had been going on for two years.”
The pandemic has made these kinds of practices more challenging. Fortunately, there are innovative ways to work around the restrictions.
“I’ve just been involved in a pilot project where folks were sent a package of fabric and fibres, needles and thread and invited to ‘Take a Thread and Follow it,’” says Nichols. “The pilot was created for people living with health challenges.”
Nichols says he often leaves out the word “art,” as it can intimidate or exclude some people. Instead, he thinks of the practice as simply “making stuff.” The idea is to make the process as open as possible.
“Not everyone can be a Picasso,” says Marris, “but everyone has the capacity to express themselves, and needs to.”
Whether one considers oneself a serious artist or not, these kinds of programs, and the active involvement of both artists and non-artists, have been proven to have real societal benefit.
“There’s a ton of data now on some almost miraculous healing effects of immersion in various forms of art,” says Gord Langill, director of programs and services for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge. “Many mainstream community mental health programs in our communities now offer expressive arts groups and activities.”
There is great diversity in how arts and mental health can interact. There is Expressive Arts Therapy, the form of therapy Nichols employs, which is a proven tool for all sorts of healing, whether physical, mental, neurological or spiritual. There are galleries like Artspace, an artist-run centre in Peterborough, which has a history of supporting mental health recovery work. And then there are multidisciplinary arts organizations like Workman Arts — one of Langill’s favourites — which promotes a greater understanding of mental health and addiction.
“I have collaborated with Workman Arts on projects in my field of Early Psychosis Intervention, hosting visual and performance art exhibits at our conferences,” he says. “All of the work is produced by people living with mental health issues. For these shows, we brought visual art pieces and the young artists who created them from all over Ontario to our conferences in Toronto. They are always so moving for audiences, so empowering for artists.”
Many of these approaches have one thing in common: they bridge the individual creative experience with a sense of community. This can help to address mental health issues that are connected to social isolation.
“There is a lot to be said for thinking of art as a collective experience,” says Annie Jaeger, a Peterborough-based visual artist. “Sit in a theatre, or listen to music, or read the same book — it is not entirely a solitary enjoyment. I think that’s kind of profound.”
That said, it would be wrong to assume that all artists are necessarily engaged in self-therapy. Though there is plenty of evidence to support the mental health benefits of art — for individuals, as well as for the community at large — the practice of making art is multifold.
“I resist the ‘art as therapy’ characterization,” says Jaeger. “Certainly, it is therapeutic — but so is fresh air. We need it.”
What is clear is that artmaking, and the appreciation of that making, can help to create community, which is good for the mental health of us all. It can empower and enrich, providing, in Brian Nichols’ words — “another way to think about and imagine the world.”
And that world can be an interesting an inspiring place, perhaps a little brighter than the one we inhabit in the day-to-day. As the celebrated Peterborough poet PJ Thomas says in the poem “Crimson Flowers,” from the recently released collection, Undertow: “ … the weather always changes, / and we will someday have / clear sailing again.”
This series of articles about the arts, culture and heritage sector in Peterborough is presented by the Electric City Culture Council (EC3).
EC3 is a not-for-profit service organization supporting the arts, culture and heritage sector in Peterborough and the surrounding region.
EC3 provides strategic leadership, research, resources and connections that build and strengthen the sector.
EC3, along with the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough, is currently raising funds for the Peterborough Arts Alive Fund, to provide Strategic Recovery and Resilience Grants for local arts organizations affected by COVID-19. You can donate at https://cfgp.ca/project/arts-alive-fund/.
Three to See Saturday: Churchill lights, SNAP art sale and the awesome VISSIA – Edmonton Journal
Holiday Light Up: The Downtown Business Association is teaming up with multiple partners to add a little warm glow to the core, and being outside we can all easily keep our distance. Six installations will be rolled out at different downtown locations over the next week, lit in stages though Jan. 8 in the evenings. The first two are Transformation: Promise and Wisdom by Sharon Rose Kootenay and Jason Symington — with an assist form The Works Art & Design Festival — and Winter Wonder by Vicky Mitall, and can now be viewed at Sir Winston Churchill Square. New installations around the inner grid will be updated on the DBA website — edmontontondowntown.com/holidaylightup.
Details: Every night at — so far — Churchill Square, no charge
SNAP Annual Members Show & Sale: From personal experience I can tell you this is one of the easiest and most appreciated ways of getting your “happy season” shopping out of the way, the gift of magnificent, meticulously-crafted art — now just a click away thanks to the hated 2020 plague. That said, if you book ahead at snapartists.com, you can still wander through the space. “When people make an appointment they have the entire gallery to themselves for 30 minutes,” explains SNAP exec April Dean. “The whole show is up and framed in the gallery and it looks beautiful. There’s 85 framed prints up, ready to deck your halls, if you will.” If you can’t make it Saturday, don’t worry, show’s up though Dec. 19, at which point the hardworking staff will take a break and be back in the new year, just another thing about 2021 that’s going to be awesome.
Details: noon on at SNAP Gallery (10572 115 St.) or online at snapartists.com
VISSIA: If all that sounds a little too “near any other human” for you, it’s about time you spent some virtual time with local singer Alex Vissia, who’ll be having some musical quality time with her fans and having a party to celebrate the release of her new single, About Moving On. This all happens on facebook.com/vissiamusic, you can do it!
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