by Stephen Thirlwall
The Canada 150 experience in Ottawa has been quite rich. Many of these events (e.g., Canada Day and its fireworks, La Machine) were very high energy events. However, there was one – Populace – which was quiet and reflective in nature; yet still powerful. This article follows up on the earlier Centretown Buzz article in June announcing its opening.
The exhibition ran from June to late September. Because of its quiet nature and its location on a narrow greenspace on the east side of the Museum of Nature, many people may not have noticed it and missed the experience. I only discovered it by accident just before its formal ending.
While the conception came from one person (Hilde Lambrechts), the piece as a whole needed many others to construct it and give it life.
The project was organized through the Ottawa Guild of Potters, with Kirstin Davidson coordinating and Kim Lulashnyk handling administration and media. The overall project involved numerous individuals, community ceramic groups, community centres and high schools.
Populace described Canada as it was at the time of Confederation. The installation acknowledged the three main peoples who lived here at that time: The First Nations, the French and the English. These groups were represented by three types of clay figures: feathers, fleurs de lys and roses, respectively. At the same time, each figure was as unique as the person who made it.
As with all art, it is important to step back before trying to understand what the art work means, and experience it: walk freely around and through it, sit beside it, meditate on it, touch it (especially important with clay), and observe the many aspects of the figures and their groupings, placements, and surroundings.
And take photographs! The exhibit was in a small park with grass and trees (some labelled because of special dedications). The park is also inhabited by a family of dinosaurs. The clay figures were in clusters with curving fencelines around and pathways between. You could reach over and touch figures near the edges.
After immersing yourself in the experience, various possible interpretations start to naturally emerge in your mind.
From one perspective, Populace seemed like a cemetery of the past with small white tombstones in three shapes. From another view, it could be seen as a map of the beginnings of Canada. Some groupings were just feathers standing apart. Similarly, some were only roses or only fleurs de lys. But others were mixed in different combinations.
This, however, is only the surface view. In our mind’s eye, we might see the actual many separate tribes of First Nations peoples; the different groupings of French that came from a few very distinctive parts of France; and the English speakers, with high percentages of Scottish and Irish. Some of the United Empire Loyalists were Dutch and German.
This made me ponder how things have changed since that time as other areas joined Confederation and new groups of people came as immigrants or refugees. In a Populace art garden a hundred years later, in 1967, there would be many different clay forms present to represent the increased population and the diversity of new Canadians: Chinese who worked on the railway; Eastern Europeans who came to work prairie farms; Southern Europeans, Lebanese and Jewish families who increased urban populations; escaped Black slaves seeking freedom; Inuit in the North. What would be their clay symbols?
And now by 2017, the more recent moving populations have mostly come from the rest of the world: Eastern and Southern Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, many parts of Africa, the West Indies, and South and Central Americas, and so on. These new waves of peoples call for more clay representations. Canada has become part of a highly connected world, and the world is now represented in Canada.
Hopefully, the creative tranquility of Populace also represents an attainable tranquility and peacefulness within Canada today and in the future.