When I travel, I love experiencing public outdoor art. I’ve discovered some deliberately, following the directions in guide books. Other displays have popped up unexpectedly on a side street when I was looking for morning coffee, or took a wrong turn on my way to shop in a town plaza.
No matter how I make my discoveries, public art slows me down and connects me – to my own thoughts and feelings, and to the community I’m visiting. I gain insight into how people define beauty, what makes them laugh, whose accomplishments they celebrate, and which events they want to remember.
And while I’ve visited my share of indoor art galleries and museums, I cherish the accessibility of outdoor public art. It has no opening or closing hours. If I want to experience a child’s sense of wonder captured in bronze, or reflect on the sacrifices of war heroes at 2:30 a.m., I can. Not only that, but public art doesn’t restrict its patrons to those who can afford the price of admission. It doesn’t care who I am, how I’m dressed, or how much money I have. By definition, public art is inclusive.
This summer, I got acquainted with the city of Penticton, a beach resort in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, partly through its public art. Penticton’s one traffic roundabout features the metal silhouettes of children dancing around a central maypole, topped by a graceful peacock.
“The Romp,” a dynamic bronze sculpture that depicts three children goofing around on the rocks of Okanagan Lake, reconnected me with memories of flawless childhood summer days when my only responsibility was finding ways to have more fun than I’d had the day before. On the lakeside promenade, silky banners and pots of flowers swayed in the breeze, enhancing Penticton’s natural charms and good looks.
One day as I was climbing the hill back to my accommodation in the rippling mid-day heat, I heard the tantalizing splash of fountain water. It was coming from the fenced courtyard of a lakeside condominium complex, in particular from a bronze statue of a woman playing the harp. This innovative rendering of water music (I thought Handel would approve) made me smile, and I looked for a way to get closer to the musician so that I could spend some time with her.
What I found was a locked gate with a coded security pad. Disappointed, I got my camera lens as close to the bars on the fence as I could, zoomed in, and snapped a rather unsatisfactory shot of the harpist’s least flattering side.
I’m not totally sure why this situation cast a shadow over an otherwise cloudless vacation day. Maybe it was being denied what I knew could have been a great photograph, if only I’d be able to get a little closer. Maybe it was the sense that much wonderful art is reserved only for those who have the money to enjoy it. Or maybe it was because the water harpist had been placed on the border between public and private art – visible to those of us walking by but with limits placed on our ability to fully enjoy her.
Whatever the reason, the next day, I found myself gazing again at the condo sculpture, although this time with a more calculating eye. What did she look like from the other side? Maybe if I retreated back down the sidewalk a bit and held my camera through the fence at a different angle….
And then I noticed that the gate was open.
No one else was on the sidewalk, and the condo residents must all have been napping, lunching, or lying on the beach. I slipped inside the gate, camera at the ready, and saw that the harpist was only one of many water musicians, each occupying a different level of the terraced residence that stepped down the hill towards the lake.
With each step I descended, and each photograph I took, I felt a little braver. Somewhere around the gushing trombonist, a woman in perfectly pressed Bermuda shorts and a large-brimmed hat came out of her condo with a pair of gardening shears. She looked at me quizzically, but didn’t say anything. I smiled and kept on going.
Two more levels to go until I reached the street.
“You know that you have to pay $10 for each picture you take.”
My heart pounding, I turned around to see a grinning, grey-haired resident, lugging a bag of fertilizer into his apartment. He winked at me, and closed the door.
I slipped out the gate at the bottom of the stairs, feeling more than a little exhilarated. The residents who had previously kept these sculptures to themselves asked me to close the gate quietly when I left, so that’s what I did. New displays of public art don’t always need to be accompanied by noisy fanfare.