Sunday, 15 February 2015

Public Art that Succeeds at the Faculty of Medicine

This is one of those rare examples where public art succeeds.  The instance is Crafting a Legacy, a ceramic mural that was unveiled at The Faculty of Medicine's new extension at the Health Science Centre in St. John's Newfoundland.  The joke about the camel is that it is a horse designed by a committee.  That problem often afflicts public art.  What impressed me about this new mural is that it was democratic in philosophy and employed the skills of fifteen amateur artists but it did not result in anything watered down or amateur.

The mural is the brain child of Drs. Jim and Leslie Rourke–Jim is the current Dean of Medicine and he refers to his wife as his co-visionary. (That won my vote.)  While they were visiting a museum in British Columbia the Rourkes encountered a ceramic mural produced largely by students.  The secret ingredient was a B.C. artist by the name of Lynda Faulks and the Rourkes knew they needed her.  Faulks has the talent to harness and focus groups of untrained individuals to create community based art.  My own politics is a politics of inclusion but at the same time I very much respect professionalism and the recognition of professionalism within the arts.  Faulks seems to pull the balancing act off.

Speaking at the unveiling, Faulks summed it up by asking a rhetorical question of the audience.  "Remember when you were told that anybody could join the choir and then being asked not to sing once you were in it?  I don't want anyone to have that experience of art."  Faulks was brought to Newfoundland and Labrador and worked with fifteen individuals who were students, one-time students, faculty and staff with the school of Medicine.  Two other professional artists were recruited to assist with the project.  They are Wendy Shirran, who is the co-ordinator of the Clay Studio of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Vesselina Tomova, a St. John's based painter and illustrator.  I asked Wendy what it was liked working with so many amateurs especially those who were untrained in ceramics.  She responded that what struck her most was the meaning behind the imagery the amateurs selected.

The subject matter of the tiles that made up the mural ranges from the history of medicine in general, to topics like genetics, anatomy, midwifery, telemedicine or Grenfell's legacy.  Each tile had deep personal meaning, for example, Sharon Buehler is a retired professor of epidemiology and she chose to depict the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 in Okak.
Maker of tile #12, The History of Medicine, Christina Dove, Clinical Research Assistant and Art Therapist before the mural.  Dove is also known in the community as being part of the Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which helped "fuel" the troops during the making process.

Visually speaking, what impressed me was how well the tiles were married.  Despite the variety of subject matter, styles, proportions, etc the mural comes across as a harmonious whole.  I think this was in large part due to the glazing of the ceramic.  The metallic tones of the mural help to pull it all together and give it a visual cohesiveness.  It also keeps the large amount of content in check.  This is important as it keeps the mural from feeling like propaganda or advertising, which are instances where the content overwhelms the formal aspects.

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