Artist takes up residence to make public art for Elgin Street

These prototypes are the kinds of sculptures that Francis Montillaud will install on Elgin Street.

Judging by past controversies, public art isn’t always to the public taste.

The City of Ottawa, which commits one per cent of every civic construction project to art, knows this and is working hard to ensure the art it commissions attempts to fit the neighbourhood in which it is placed.

The latest example of that will be along Elgin Street, which will be renovated in 2019 starting on Jan. 7. That will no doubt mean traffic snarls and impacted businesses, but in the end a new thoroughfare will be revealed and it will feature wider sidewalks, benches, trees and the art of Francis Montillaud.

He is a public art veteran having done several projects in and around Montreal and as far afield as Winnipeg.

Francis Montillaud is the artist in residence on the Elgin Street revitalization project.

To put his work on Elgin Street, Montillaud entered and won a competition last summer. The project is valued at $150,000. It involves a relatively new concept for Ottawa’s public art program — a residency.

Montillaud will be an artist-in-residence for five months stretched over the next year and a half. By the late spring of 2020 his work will appear on the street.

This will be the second residency project run by Ottawa’s public art program, says Melissa Black, who is a public art officer with the city.

The residency is now underway. The project will explore “themes of body language and social interactions through a series of video production workshops.” These took place in December.

In the film sessions at SAW Video, people Montillaud has seen on Elgin Street and recruited, were live models. They were filmed and they will also serve as models for facial and body imprints that will use traditional casting techniques.

“The intention,” says a description provided by the city, “is to capture snapshots of a laugh, a grimace or any of the many expressions of people who live, work or play around the Elgin Street community.”

Montillaud told ARTSFILE that these face and body imprints will be cast in bronze at a foundry. But they are really only the starting point for his vision.

The final sculptures “will not be realistic portraits of the people,” he said. “The art works will be deconstructed. They will be busts but not the kinds people might expect.”

He’ll use new technologies such as a laser or a 3D printer to remake the bust.

“I want to make a strong relationship between the sculptures and the people on the street. I want to show the body in a new way.”

He says that these sculptures will be his response to the more traditional statues that are included in the National War Memorial at the top of Elgin Street near Parliament Hill.

In so doing, Montillaud says, he is “breaking boundaries and all the rules of classical sculpture.”

Body language is central to Montillaud’s art in this project. It’s his goal to have a conversation with the people of Elgin Street using body language as the medium of communication.

This Ottawa project is, he says, an extension of his thinking about public art.

“It’s really gratifying to have my sculptures on a major street. It’s also gratifying to build these sculptures with the community.

“I am interested in social interactions. I am interested in what our body can show without thinking and speaking through the way you stand, through the expressions we make and how we present ourselves.”

Montillaud believes that traditional public sculpture is “not real. There is no expression. They stand a certain way” that symbolizes a public perception about what a solider on a horse should look like, or a Father of Confederation for that matter.

He wants his work to be “more real and closer to the community. I am trying to democratize the portrait” so it’s not just a general or a politician on a plinth.

Black says the goal of the residency is “that there is some creative and collaborative dialogue between the artist and the community so that the final art work can be more of the place, more site specific.”

She says that one of the reasons public art is not well received when it is installed is that “it’s not the right art for the place.” Officials are said to have not done their research.

It is hoped that this residency will give Montillaud time to make a deeper connection with the Elgin Street community, she said.

The city isn’t using residencies in every art project going forward. For example, the next major one will be on Montreal Road from the Cummings Bridge to Saint Laurent Boulevard won’t have one. That street will be revitalized next year.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.