A soft spot for public art

Everybody has an opinion about public art — even about fairly innocuous creations, like the giant brick bunny at 49th Avenue and 48th Street in Red Deer.

Ceramic artist Pat Matheson with some of his raku pottery. Matheson

Ceramic artist Pat Matheson with some of his raku pottery. Matheson

Everybody has an opinion about public art — even about fairly innocuous creations, like the giant brick bunny at 49th Avenue and 48th Street in Red Deer.

The whimsical work by local artists Brian McArthur and Dawn Detarando is supposed to create a sense of playfulness on Alexander Way.

Yet it causes a lot of passersby to raise an eyebrow and wonder what the bulky statue is doing on the sidewalk next to a Fields store?

The City of Red Deer’s public art co-ordinator, Pat Matheson believes some mystification over the brick bunny would be cleared up if the other half of this statue project were erected.

There’s supposed to be a predatory brick owl sitting further up the street, hungrily eyeing the rabbit, said Matheson.

But the owl never got built. “The city couldn’t pay for both.”

Even without the owl, Matheson believes a segment of the population maintains a soft spot for the bunny.

Last Easter, he drove by the brick rabbit and noticed that someone had draped a large yellow ribbon around its neck. “The next day, there was a fresh pile of carrots in front of it,” said Matheson.

“I love this kind of interaction,” added Matheson, who considers the Leonard Gaetz statue that sits on a Ross Street bench another great piece of interactive public art.

You can’t pass by the bronze Rev. Gaetz on a nice day without seeing people getting their picture taken with him or witnessing kids climbing onto his lap, said Matheson, who calls this Ghosts statue, as well as the Sound the Alarm firemen and horses in front of the public library, “dynamic” examples of public art.

The 56-year-old prefers this to more static art — and in his job as public art co-ordinator, he has a chance to influence the kind of street art that Red Deer gets.

While Matheson has no direct vote on the city’s public art committee (which includes an artist-at-large, city representatives and members of the public), the ceramicist said he can draw on his own knowledge and background to stem potential problems.

For instance, he could raise red flags if inappropriate materials were being proposed for a project, if an artist lacked experience or created a work that was somehow out of proportion.

Matheson was raised in Red Deer and took primarily two-dimensional art at Red Deer College before getting his undergraduate degree in ceramics at the University of Calgary.

He then helped launch the Series and Summerscape programs while working as an extension course co-ordinator at RDC in the late 1980s, before going for his master’s degree at the University of Regina.

After working for some years as an art historian at the Regina Plains Resource Centre, Matheson moved back to Central Alberta in 2000 when his father’s health began to fail.

He was needed to look after his grandparents’ homestead near the Jarvis Bay Campground northeast of Sylvan Lake.

It was a matter of returning or selling the property that had been in the family for more than 100 years, so “it was an easy decision,” recalled the artist. Matheson worked for a while for his sister’s boiled bagel business in Red Deer before renovating the farmhouse and creating a ceramics studio where he could produce original art.

These days, when he isn’t at his 20-hour-a-week job at the city, Matheson creates interesting pieces of raku pottery, which take on random colours, crackles and markings after being fired at a lower temperature than standard ceramics.

His vessels come in many different organic shapes and sizes. Some of the appealing works contain strategically placed holes, others have glazed images of birds and Christmas wreaths.

All have a one-of-a-kind look, as they are purposely imperfect, with finger imprints and uneven edges.

Matheson conceded he would be bored by creating “perfect” wheel-thrown pieces.

But he has produced other high-concept artworks that could best be described as ambitious.

Some of his towering ceramic sculptures, which were exhibited last summer at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, needed to be kiln-fired in sections as they rise two metres from the ground.

They represent mounds of stones cleared from farmers’ fields. Matheson scratched old text from historic accounts of early settlement in the area onto some of these rock depictions.

He had no shortage of source material to draw from. His great-grandmother and grandmother were fanatical record keepers, saving newspaper articles and other historic descriptions of landscape and early settlement in the area.

Matheson said his grandmother even wrote a book about growing up near Bentley and, along with his grandfather, kept many old photos of the diminishing parkland.

The artist, who finds it alarming that only about five per cent of the grassy areas of aspen trees remain from 120 years ago, used these recorded changes to the local landscape as inspiration for his exhibit.

Matheson remains open to all kinds of public art but would prefer if, like the Ghosts bronze statues of local figures, it had some kind of link to the area.

“If public money is used, we should be acknowledging something about Red Deer,” he said.

Of all the art on city streets, Matheson believes the most highly contentious are abstract metal creations, like the one on long-term loan from the Alberta Foundation of the Arts, which sits near the corner of 32nd Street and Taylor Drive.

But Matheson believes the public can come around even to abstract pieces.

He points out that another metal work at the end of Alexander Way, called Red Deer Line, by local sculptor Ron Mills, is very popular. Children love to climb the railway-themed piece that has a front end like a snow plow. Adults have used the a flat area as a bench, and the sculpture contains two living trees planted within it.

“Once again, people are buying in because it’s interactive,” said Matheson, who believes the community has gained immeasurably from having art in its midst. While much of it was financed according to a City of Red Deer policy of spending one per cent of a project’s cost on artwork, Matheson knows some people think this is a waste of money.

But he’s reminded of what former culture minister Doug Main once said about public art. Main instructed people who didn’t see its value to then remove all pictures and photo calendars from their walls, and to turn their TVs and radios off.

“Art provides our city with an identity and residents with a better life. Money has to be spent on these things to make our lives fuller,” said Matheson, who sees tangible benefits — like the American tourist who detoured off Hwy 2 specifically to see the city’s Ghosts collection, after researching Alberta tourist sites on the Internet.

Matheson also believes many people were persuaded to move to Red Deer because the city has some cultural attractions. “We are well known for our trail system, but we are also a Culture Capital of Canada.”

With that in mind, maybe the brick bunny near the Fields store deserves more respect — and more carrots.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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