There is art to be found in Old Ottawa South, even if all the galleries in town are closed. Where? On the street. Take a walk along Bank on a sunny, quiet day. Make believe you are in a gallery. Look across the street at storefronts as though they were paintings and sculptures in an exhibition. Look up, down, all around. No need for labels.
Whatever sort of art you like – portraits, folklore, history, myth, satire – chances are, you can find at least one example in the streetscape of Bank between Aylmer and Riverdale. No crowds, no ticket needed here. Just put on your best “art-gazing” eyeglasses, and head out to the street.
Garden of Light
High on the wall of the now-closed Garden of Light near Sunnyside is an intriguing mural. It depicts five dogs, all the same size, each one differently coloured – purple, blue, green, yellow. They sit in one staid row. Red dog is missing. What is the storyline here? Across the street, kittycat has a certain smug look. She looks at them from the window of Christine's Pet Parlour.
On the corner of Belmont and Bank stands a finely worked portrait sculpture of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). The figure stands with folded hands. An extended tunic drape forms a third point of support. The artist is unidentified. Two benches and six planters fill out the corner. Sri Chinmoy was a South Asian spiritual leader, based in New York for many years. His followers were legion. At the time of his death, the New York Times reported that condolence letters were sent to the Chinmoy centre from luminaries the world over, including Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev.
American artist Edward Hopper's (1882-1967) mid-century cityscapes were open windows to stories whispered by others. On the far side of the often-empty Scotiabank parking lot is a row of houses. The row suggests something similar. The structures are coloured red, yellow, grey. Their proportions are those of the golden section, the Pythagorean ratio beloved of Leonardo, Hopper, and many others.
The artists of Ottawa Urban Arts (OUA) are the source to be credited for two exceptional examples of mural painting along Bank. On a wall near Hopewell, we see two youth riding the waves with glorious intensity. The headgear suggests what their dreams may be...“if only, one day...”.
Not far away, across the street at 1230 Bank Street, Trinity Anglican Church, is another OUA mural with a different tale to tell. It is a memorial to indigenous youth whose cries for help were not answered. In and among the design of eagle and woman holding a red telephone are names to remember: Tina, Colton, Kyle, Barb, Adam, and many more. The poem excerpted in the braid wrapping the building corner states simply, “We shine bright like the colour of the sunset.”
Further along the street, at 1240 Bank, Yardley’s Antiques has a grand pile of sculpture out front. Two small, somewhat tacky, marble Greek sphinxes sit on the steps. What were they once? The base of something – a gentleman’s smoking table, perhaps, one out in the garden? The bronze, elegant walking horse nearby pays them no mind. More interesting are the two large groups of hippocampi – eight in all, tumbling atop one another. Those beasts were Poseidon’s steeds when he ruled the seas. Did Poseidon drive his chariot all the way from the Adriatic to the Rideau? Well, that ancient one did like to destroy shorelines, flooding them from time to time.
Perhaps your tastes run more to the poetry of black, white, of line and colour. If so, then look to the black-and-white signage of Jabbany Salon and Panago pizza. The strong green of Cylie's chocolates completes the row. Not to your taste? Want more movement in that line? A bit of zip? Check out the adjacent signs of the Massage Addict and The Cyclery. Across the street, that same line softly animates the floppy ears of Happy Goat.
Not faraway, the ironic juxtaposition of signage identifying Senate Tavern, In the Air: Knife and Axe Throwing Bar, and Comet Comics does not go unremarked. Just a block further, in the windows of Delusions of Grandeur is a sign reading, “We'll get thru this.” Yes. We will.
More than a hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp argued the validity of what is now called “found art.” Go see for yourself. Take a walk along Bank Street. Look at what is there. Chances are you will find something well worth a second look.
Art has ever the ability to shift points-of-view – an ability never more important than in self-conscious, or dark times.
Maureen Korp, independent critic, curator, and historian, has lived long in Ottawa.
Originally published in the June 2020 OSCAR.