Public art coming to Portage bridge to be a “bridge” between cultures

A photo illustration of The Gather-Ring supplied by Manuel Baez.

A new public art installation will be on a bridge and act as a bridge between Canada’s cultures and eras.

The Gather-Ring, to be installed in June on the Portage Bridge over the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau, will incorporate materials and themes from indigenous and European settler cultures, and from the nature and industry that have guided the history of the site.

“This is a place for dialogue, for gathering,” says Manuel Baez, an artist and architecture professor at Carleton University, who designed and is building the project with Ottawa glass artist Charlynne Lafontaine. Baez says the site will be “for reflection through our collective memory, for storytelling and discussions related to reconciliation of the land’s distant past and the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.”

The Gather-Ring, to be erected on the bridge in June and left in place for one year, was selected through a Heritage Canada competition. The competition theme was Dream, which resonated with Baez, who previously designed the elaborate ceiling of the Centre for Aboriginal Culture and Education at Carleton,  and who was working with students on a Canada 150 project for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, to design “meeting spaces” that will be “a gift to the indigenous community.”

Baez says the Gather-Ring will be grounded by a 20-foot-circle of cedar, scored with enough “growth rings” to represent a tree more than 1,000 years old. His initial idea of a tree only 150 years old was discarded because he realized it would be “very colonial-centric, as if nothing existed before that.”

The 150 years since Confederation do get a nod in four columns that will rise from the cedar deck, precisely at the growth ring representing the year 1867. The columns also represent the four provinces that founded Canada — Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The columns will be positioned at the four compass points, which have cross-cultural importance, and will be fashioned from logs that were floated downstream decades ago when industrial logging dominated the site, and which were recently retrieved by divers from the river bottom.

Atop the columns will be four beams “that in profile sort of hint of a canoe,” Baez says, and which support a ring divided into 13 segments, representing the 10 provinces and three territories that make up Canada, and the 13 moons of indigenous creation stories.

Suspended from the beams will be a spiral web of light chain link, and that’s where Charlynne LaFontaine comes in. At Loretta Studio and Galleries, a new warren of artists’ spaces that she recently founded, she’s producing about 1,600 varying, tubular pieces of glass, which will be textured to capture light to “sparkling” effect.

LaFontaine, who with Ryan Lotecki created the public art piece Morphology on the Somerset bridge between Preston and Wellington streets, is confident that her “very hard” boiled silicate glass will stand up to a year of Ottawa weather.

“I’ve done freezer tests already where I’ve filled them with water, I corked the bottom of them and put them in my freezer and they were just fine.”

Central to the Gather-Ring, Baez says, will be a circle of benches, in which visitors can sit “looking inwards towards the distant past, before 1867, or you can sit on the other side looking outward, towards the immediate past, present and future. It’s reflective that way, meditative that way, in a sense.”

Those who visit and sit will have a commanding view of both the river, of Ottawa and Gatineau, Parliament, Victoria Island, the Museum of History and more.

“You’re looking at Canadian history,” he says. “The project is really in the spirit of reflection and reconciliation.”

Baez says he’s consulting with local indigenous groups, including the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.