- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

OTTAWA — A bear from Arctic Nunavut province has found his way into the urban surroundings of Canada’s national capital, but no one is alarmed. He’s such a cheerful creature that people just smile when they encounter him in the stone-paved courtyard where he has taken up residence.

I do the same, but my meeting with him is hardly by chance. I’ve been on the lookout for him for several days.

He’s “Dancing Bear,” a bronze charmer by sculptor Pauta Saila, and he’s No. 31 in a guide to public art in the capital region that has led my husband and me into parks and assorted urban nooks and crannies that we might have missed without it.

The bilingual pamphlet, “Street SmART” in English and “PromenART” in French, can be the basis of self-guided walking tours of seven areas within Ottawa and Gatineau, across the Ottawa River in French-speaking Quebec province. That’s exactly how we use it.

We luck into a copy in our Gatineau hotel lobby during our first visit to the Ottawa area one sunny September and enjoy it so much that we request the updated version for our second visit, for February’s Winterlude festival. We carry it with us every day on our first visit, checking off each work of art as we find it. We don’t range as far from downtown Ottawa on our second visit as on the first, but the brochure still is a welcome companion, setting my itinerary for a long walk one afternoon as I return to works I enjoyed earlier and continue the hunt for some that eluded me the first time. I find a few, too.

The next time we visit, we’ll be able to print out a pdf version from the National Capital Commission’s Web site before we leave home.

The online 2007-08 brochure has a total of 81 entries, plus brief commentaries on the statues and artists.

Mr. Saila’s bear, for instance, is Ottawa’s first public work by a Nunavut artist. The Inuit sculptor, born on Baffin Island in 1917, insists that the bears for which he is well known aren’t really dancing, just playing, as he has seen them do on ice fields during his hunting excursions. He took up art, first drawing and carving, “to supplement his livelihood as a hunter,” the pamphlet says.

This particular bear is in the Byward Market, where Ottawa got its start. This part of the city, a short walk from Parliament Hill, includes not only the historic market for which it’s named, but also a colorful mix of museums, restaurants, nightclubs and small shops. It also has 14 of the brochure’s public artworks and, with their range of styles and subjects, is a good representative of the fun it can be to let the pamphlet be your tour guide.

Lt. Col. John By of the Royal Engineers founded Ottawa, then called Byward, in the 1820s and also built the famed 125-mile Rideau Canal connecting the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario. He watches over the canal and, on the opposite bank, Parliament from his pedestal in Major’s Hill Park.

The same park, across the street from architect Moshe Safdie’s glass-turreted National Gallery of Canada, contains “Twist 1.5,” a very different work created by Alex Wyse and Ken Guild in 1978. It looks to me like a hand fan opened wide and then twisted over itself, but if so, it’s a very big fan, taller than me and made of British Columbian fir. The pamphlet says the public was able to watch the artists working on the piece in the park.

Visible from the park — and many parts of both Gatineau and Ottawa because of his hilltop location overlooking the Ottawa River — is Samuel de Champlain, portrayed by Hamilton MacCarthy in 1915. Unfortunately, as the pamphlet points out, the explorer, geographer, mapmaker and founder of Quebec City, who investigated the Ottawa River in 1613, is shown holding his astrolabe, a navigation instrument, upside down.

If that bit of trivia doesn’t make you smile, surely “McClintock’s Dream” will. Victor Tolgesy’s 1978 papier-mache fantasy hangs from the stories-tall ceiling of the Byward Market building. Emerging from an immense puffy cloud are characters holding, among other items, a pig, a string of link sausages, apples, garlic on a string and a plucked goose. Atop the cloud we see colorful baskets, buckets, geese, chickens and produce. The pamphlet says the Hungarian-born artist was “turning away from abstract art … towards what he called ‘a deliberate involvement with humanity’ ” before he died in 1980 at age 52.

Definitely abstract and contemporary is Joel Shapiro’s 1999 metal sculpture “Conjunction,” a construction of squared bronze pieces joined at angles. It’s attractive against the open sky but makes a small impression on me until I read that the work, owned by the U.S. Embassy, was intended as “a strong statement of friendship between Canada and the United States.” Mr. Shapiro wanted his work, inaugurated by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1999, “to be ‘a joining of individual parts into a coherent and unexpected whole.’ ”

Perhaps most unusual of all the sculptures, not only in the Byward Market area, but in the entire national capital region, is the “Tin House,” a two-story facade from a real house, attached high on the rough stone wall of a building at least twice its height.

“In the early 20th century,” the pamphlet explains, tinsmith Honore Foisy advertised his trade by decorating the outside of his Lowertown Ottawa house, which stood a few blocks from here. When the house was demolished in 1961, the facade was saved and later reproduced by artist Art Price using original and fabricated parts.”

Lowertown is the historical business district east of the Rideau Canal. The west side, where Parliament is located, is called Uppertown. At one time, the terms upper and lower had socioeconomic meaning as well, with the working class living in Lowertown and the elites in Uppertown.

Like my friend “Dancing Bear,” the “Tin House” is in a courtyard I might not have entered if it hadn’t been for my “Street SmART” map and booklet. This reinforces the advice given by the guide on a double-decker bus tour we took on our first day in Ottawa. Whenever you see an opening between buildings in Ottawa, she said, walk through it because some of the most interesting and enjoyable spots in the city are its hidden courtyards.

We have taken the booklet with us through Parliament Hill and along North Sussex Drive, which leads from center city to Rideau Hall, home of the governor general of Canada. We have followed the booklet’s lead south on foot along Elgin Street, basically following the canal through town, and west on Wellington Street, “Canada’s Government Street.”

I have favorites in each section: John Hooper’s 1983 representation of Terry Fox running 143 days through eastern Canada on a prosthetic leg to raise money for cancer research before dying of the disease at age 22 (Parliament Hill); Mr. Hooper’s playful 1981 “Balancing,” with brightly painted carved wood figures balancing on a beam to the bemusement of a suited, bespectacled wooden observer (Elgin Street); magnificent totems in several locations; and the charming “Secret Bench of Knowledge” in front of the Library and Archives Canada (Wellington). Artist Lea Vivot, unbidden, had the 1993 work deposited in front of the library, where it became so popular that philanthropist Eugene Boccia donated a copy of it for permanent installation.

In downtown Gatineau, I’m taken with a street-corner statue of retired Montreal Canadiens hockey great Maurice “the Rocket” Richard in action. The design, by Sylvie Beauchesne and Jean-Raymond Goyer of the firm Au Coeur du Bronze, was rendered under Jules Lasalle and poured under Denis Gagnon.

We haven’t spent as much time in Gatineau as in the pamphlet’s Ottawa locations, so I have a lot of artworks still to find, enjoy and check off, particularly on “an enchanting little island” that we have yet to visit in the Brewery Creek area of Gatineau.

•••

To find the pdf version of the “Street SmART” pamphlet, go to http://www.canadascapital.gc.ca/data/2/rec_docs/1642_StreetSmart2005.pdf. Otherwise, call 800/465-1867.

For tourism information on Ottawa, see www.ottawatourism.ca.

For Gatineau and surroundings, see www.tourismeoutaouais.com.

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