Why the ‘why’ behind public art is so important

Stories behind community installations provide context, better enrich lives

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” — Aristotle.

The meaning behind art has been discussed for centuries. More recently, however, it’s impact on public art is encouraging stakeholders to go beyond just erecting colourful landmarks and instead creating community monuments with meaning.

And according to Heavy Industries Development and Design Lead, Connor Hayduk, that starts by asking the most important question of them all: Why?

“By asking why, we’re able to revisit and reevaluate assumptions so that we can better understand the project and best serve it,” he says.

“We’re obviously very motivated to put good work out there and create pieces that enrich lives. To best serve the project means to be able to ask the right questions and develop a good understanding of the intent of the piece early on.”

That means understanding the history and discovering the motivation behind the project, adds Hayduk. “What do they hope to achieve in the end? What experience are they trying to create?”

Interestingly, many of those conversations end up creating “ah-ha” moments for stakeholders who had yet to discover their “why.”

“We’ve been involved in a lot of projects where clients knew they wanted to create something special, but hadn’t yet thought through what the intent and vision was going to be. Or if they had, they didn’t know yet how to go about it,” says Hayduk. “And that’s OK. It’s a starting point and it allows us to dig deeper and find out what the motivation really is and start to build meaning from there.” adding that once established, it’s also important to stay true to that intent throughout the project and use the why to help make critical decisions.

In some cases, that meaning takes a representative form. For example, Heavy’s collaboration with celebrated Blackfoot artist Adrian Stimson resulted in a 14-feet-tall bronze bison sculpture that welcomes guests into Calgary’s Trinity Hills community by paying homage to the surrounding land.

In other cases, that meaning can be more subtle. The celebrated Emergent artwork located outside of the Edison office tower in downtown Calgary is a monument that literally reflects the city’s history. Pieces of the installation are strategically position to reflect the Calgary Tower back to the viewers, while red LED lighting and the use of rail pays homage to the area’s connect with the railroad.

“That is a common inspiration. The key to a lot of projects is recognizing the history of these sites,” says Hayduk. “Almost always, in one way or another, that gets represented. It’s just a matter of whether it’s a primary driver of the project or more secondary.”

Hayduk also emphasizes the significance on the role artists play in evolving those important conversations into something tangible and representative of the “why” behind these projects.

“Undoubtedly. That’s one of the most important things that artists bring to our collaborations being able to craft a tangible story and vision from the core inspiration driving a project,” says Hayduk.

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