To start, a short, sweet story:
“Russell Yuristy was the first contemporary artist I knew,” recalls Alexandra Badzak, who grew up playing on Duck Boat, built by Yuristy beside the South Saskatchewan River in 1972.
“Here was a piece of contemporary public art that I was not only able to touch, but one that engaged my imagination and encouraged me to climb and slide down. Even then, I respected the artist for understanding that play could be art and that I (as an awkward nine year old) could be an intended audience. There has been a special place in my mind and heart for Russell Yuristy ever since.”
Today Badzak is director of the Ottawa Art Gallery, which is now hosting the biggest exhibition of Yuristy’s work the city has seen in years.
It’s titled The Inside of Elephants and All Kinds of Things, and Badzak’s story is in the catalogue. The exhibition is an unexpected look at work Yuristy did between 1970 and 1990, for the most part before he relocated to Ottawa.
Featured are playground installations that Yuristy built across Canada and in the United States, including the duck, moose, buffalo, polar bear, and fish and beaver — the last two in Ottawa. One installation, an elephant with a children’s slide for a trunk, has been partially rebuilt inside the gallery and is ready for sliders. (I ask curator Catherine Sinclair if there’s a weight limit. “No,” she says, with a straight face.)
The installations don’t exist in situ, having succumbed to tightening legal codes that have sought to keep children safe by making playgrounds boring. “Even the amount of code we had to jump through just to rebuild the elephant was nuts,” Sinclair says. Yuristy adds, with a wry smile, that the code pushers were, “people working for the companies that make (playground) stuff now.”
Yuristy, well up there in years, has earned his right to be acerbic and he does it well. He recalls how the installations began after aesthetic tensions led him to quit the faculty at the University of Saskatchewan in 1971. “I never got tenure. There was one guy at art school who didn’t like me,” he says, and after a slight pause adds, “He’s dead now, anyway.”
The young artist was out of work and in a starter marriage that was coming apart. He started making primitive drawings of animals that were building boats and other fantastical craft. He often did a drawing a day. They were something to focus on, he says, a way to “work it all out.” It was “cheaper than going to a psychiatrist.”
The many drawings sat in his studio for many years, even after he moved to Ottawa. Sinclair discovered them a couple of years ago. “There’s a stack of them this high,” she says, holding her hands about as far apart as the average duck’s neck. The exhibition chronicles how the drawings led to the structures, and to a lot of happy kids.
One day the young Yuristy was driving near Regina and inexplicably saw a herd of elephants, grazing in a field where the buffalo had once roamed. The beasts were with a travelling circus. The sight gave Yuristy an idea, and soon his Creative Playground Workshop was born.
With federal grant money, and inspired by his daily drawings, he began building structures made of found materials — leftover lumber, discarded cans of paint. Soon the structures were going up all over. In 1979, the National Film Board of Canada made a fun little film about Yuristy, noticeably more hirsute than he is today, driving a giant wooden buffalo across Saskatchewan to its new home in Swift Current. (Search “yuristy” at nfb.ca to watch the video.)
“What’s the idea?” a reporter asks Yuristy during a gas station stop in the documentary. “Is this a work of art or is this something that the kids are going to play on?”
“It’s both,” Yuristy says. “I never see any conflict in that.”
Two structures were in Ottawa, including a beaver on Victoria Island and a fish by old city hall. The fish was the final play structure Yuristy built, in 1992. Both are now long gone, victims of the inexorable tide of bureaucracy.
The fish and beaver and others are seen in the exhibition in photographs. Children are clambering over the Duck Boat in an expansive photograph that was taken by Eberhard Otto and originally published in the magazine now known as Canadian Art.
Sinclair selected drawings from Yuristy’s pile, and they are boisterously eccentric — a wolf paddling the Duck Boat towards Atlantis, followed by a bird in a submarine, or a faux ad on how to “Be a new man in just one week” with an “amazing psychic muscle building course.”
That acerbic humour is there: One drawing has a sky with the Eye of Providence and the biblical aphorism “do not cast pearls before swine,” while a rough-looking sow exclaims “a pig is a pig is a pig” and stands/rides on what may be some sort of mobile device. (It’s dated Aug. 17/73, so now you know where Yuristy’s mind was on that day.)
The exhibition is rounded out with other work, including drawings and sculptures in all sorts of mixed media, some of which will be more recognizable as Yuristy’s work to Ottawa gallery-goers.
Together the works reveal an artistic mind that remains as playfully inspired as it ever was, undulled by time, and still committed to nature and her creatures.
Regard it all and give thanks that, before the playground police threw a fit about the occasional splinter, at least one child was entranced, and grew up to be director of a major city gallery.
The Inside of Elephants and All Kinds of Things continues to July 26. For more: oaggao.ca