Cape Breton Post
Art honours Sydney neighbourhood
SYDNEY – A new public contemporary artwork in Northend Sydney will bring back a sound that was once common to the neighbourhood – the ringing of a bell – and takes its inspiration from the history and culture of the area.
‘Resonance’, the first in a series of public art releases slated for the summer at The Convent | Ta’n etlmawita’mk, is an outdoor sculpture created by interdisciplinary artist Ursula Johnson, who attended Holy Angels High School in the 1990s, and said her project began two years ago with a visit to the site of her former school.
“The main staircase at the entrance was still there and so, as we were walking around, I was thinking about the history of the convent and the school of Holy Angels and the base (Victoria Park Armories) down the road and the steel plant across the way and thinking about the people moving around on this land,” she said.
In particular, Johnson said she was struck by how those people would have moved at the cue of a bell – the ringing signaling the time to wake up, to go to work, to pray, to take a break, to begin class – and the piece started to take shape in her mind.
The sculpture incorporates wood from the bannister of that main staircase, “the first point of contact for everyone that entered the building over the years,” and honours the “rich industrial history” of Cape Breton and the laborers who worked in the steel plant and the coal mines, Johnson said.
She was also inspired by a project that the Banff Centre for the Arts, where she did a residency, called the Eureka Bell, a small brass bell that artists would ring to celebrate “a eureka moment.”
“I was kind of riffing off that idea because this new space has all these artists, so wouldn’t it be great to come out and share their breakthroughs, but also to have this bell that can be used for community gathering and people to come together,” Johnson said.
Melissa Kearney, the programming coordinator for The Convent | Ta’n etlmawita’mk, hopes this outdoor sculpture will speak to the community and invites people to enjoy the art both outside and inside the building.
“Taking work outside the galleries, which might be intimidating to people or feel stuffy or maybe they feel like they don’t belong – putting it outside, and it’s something that people can touch and interact with, I hope people see that they can spend time here and I think the art lends itself to that,” she said.
A call went out for public art over two years ago when the building was still in the construction phase, and Johnson is one of four artists that will contribute public art for the space, something Kearney said has become important for the art centre.
“The initial intention behind this building, to be a space for artists, morphed into something bigger, to give the community something beautiful to be proud of,” she said.
The centre for the arts, which is a venture of New Dawn Enterprises and is now home to dozens of artists, Meals on Wheels and Better Bite Café and Community
Kitchen, and Celtic Colours International Festival among other organizations and businesses, opened to the public in March 2020, just weeks before the first COVID-19 provincially mandated lockdown, so there was never a grand opening event to welcome the community to the space.
“I hope the whole neighbourhood can feel some ownership over it, that it enhances the community,” she said.
Johnson, who grew up in Eskasoni First Nation and is the great-granddaughter of celebrated Mi’kmaq artist, Caroline Gould, collaborated with the Lunenburg Foundry to bring her design to life, something that is a foundation of her artistic practice.
“Personally, to me what’s more important than the complete product at the end is the synergy that’s created within all of the people coming together and sharing ideas and problem solving together, that’s integral to the project,” she said.
Joseph Kinley, an engineer and vice-president and CFO of The Lunenburg Foundry, said the construction of ‘Resonance’ was a unique project for the company, which has been working on the waterfront in Lunenburg since 1891 and includes a shipyard, a foundry and a manufacturing facility that produces products mainly for the marine sector.
“The level of interaction and intricacies of pulling this project together was definitely a bit of an experiment for us,” he said.
“We took her design and analyzed it from a safety perspective, made sure it’s going to stand up. You see the same thing in building, for every architect there’s an engineer in the background trying to keep them grounded, but (Johnson) came to us with a smart idea we’re pretty happy with how it turned out.”
Both Kinley and Johnson said the structure, which is constructed primarily of
steel, is built to last for at least the next century, and Johnson said the collaborative nature of the piece will continue through its interaction with the community.
“I’ve done my part in creating the initial conversation, or maybe even just bringing up the first point, and then whatever conversations come from that point onwards is a shared responsibility, and I consider it to be a great honour to take part in sharing my ideas to try to instigate those conversations,” she said.
Johnson earned an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Fine Arts from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in 2006 and went on to be Cape Breton University’s first Artist in Residence in 2013 after filling the same role at the Klondike Centre for Arts and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon and Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
She was the recipient of the Hnatyshyn Foundation Reveal Indigenous Art Award in 2016 and winner of the Sobey Art Award in 2017, as well as the NS Masterworks Award for her work ‘Moose Fence’ in 2019.
A free public celebration marking the installation of ‘Resonance’ will take place on Friday, June 25 at 4 p.m. on the lawn on The Convent | Ta’n etlmawita’mk at 170 George Street in Sydney.