Review: The many sides of Ottawa considered

A look at the Glebe at night by photographer Matthew Hinther.

Three exhibitions seen on different sides of Ottawa show different sides of Ottawa, and in very different ways.

First up is a permanent exhibition of outdoor photography along a one-kilometre strip of Richmond Road in Westboro. Nine wildlife photographs by Ottawa photographer Michelle Valberg have been wrapped around traffic boxes, those formerly plain, grey cabinets that are mounted on short metal pedestals on street corners in the neighbourhood.

The boxes are wrapped with scenes of flora and fauna that were photographed by Valberg in Ottawa, or nearby at her cottage on Sharbot Lake. There are ducks, racoons and butterflies, all of them residents of our city.

“I am fortunate to travel to many places in this world to photograph wildlife, but what excites me most is wildlife in my own backyard,” Valberg says.

She’s not exaggerating about travelling to many places; a quick scan of her Facebook page and website shows photo evidence of trips to Jasper, Yellowknife, Africa, California, way down south in Patagonia and way up north in Labrador, or even further toward either of the poles. You might see her surrounded by wild horses on Sable Island, or surrounded by penguins in the Falklands.

She’s known, her website bio says, for her “ability to make relatable images of unimaginable locations,” and while Westboro may not quite be unimaginable, her relatable images of its wildlife can fire the imaginations of passersby to see the neighbourhood in new ways.

“So many people have lost their connection to nature and I hope this exhibition can bring them closer to our natural world or inspire people to explore and find peace in nature,” she says.

It’s too easy to be detached from nature when living in a city core, to lose sight of oneself as part of a natural world. Sure, most Ottawans see birds, but how sad would it be to not feel a surge of pleasure when looking at a photo of a plump cardinal perched on a snowy branch? What heart doesn’t feel a twinge of compassion for “trash pandas” when the eyes lock with those of a raccoon perched at home in an evergreen?

“Your senses come alive in nature,” Valberg says. “Listening to the silence, to the birds or smelling flowers or watching a bee fly around, whatever it is, the simplicity and beauty of nature is good for the soul.”

The exhibition was sponsored by the Westboro Village BIA, with financial support from the City of Ottawa, says BIA executive director Michelle Groulx.

Photography seemed best suited to the surfaces offered by the rectangular utility boxes, Groulx says, and Valberg has both an international reputation and a studio in Westboro.

“Westboro is very tied to nature and with our continuous urban growth, it’s important to showcase what we still have,” Groulx says.

The photos, which are licensed for five years, are spread along Richmond Road from Island Park to Golden Avenue, “the whole of Westboro Village.”

A second show of photography focuses not on wildlife, but on nighttime scenes of a neighbourhood that people either love or hate, the Glebe.

The photographer, Matthew Hinther, is firmly in the love-the-Glebe column, having been born there and still a resident thereof. The exhibition is at Studio Sixty Six on Bank Street, and the title — The Glebe is Overrated — is “a bit of a jab at the criticism the Glebe sometimes gets,” Hinther says.

“I think the Glebe gets a bit of a bad rap as being a bit snooty, especially when it comes to new development in the area. But really it is just people taking an active role in their neighbourhood. I grew up in the Glebe during the ’70s and ’80s at a time when it was more of a neighbourhood in transition. There was a lot of community involvement in making it a great neighbourhood and I still see this now.”

The photographs are in black-and-white (“I really enjoy the timelessness of black and white film,” Hinther says), and he must have shot them in the middle of the night, as there’s not a human to be seen. The focus is entirely on what humans have built, and the traces they’ve left behind.

The outdoor hockey rink at the Glebe Community Centre is scarred with the tracks of skate blades. Interior light glows out of windows in the Grenville Apartments on Fifth Avenue, where a lone, sparse tree holds court out front. A cluster of independent shops on Bank Street seem to wait patiently for activity to resume.

“I hope people will take away a new appreciation for the neighbourhood,” Hinther says. “Whether you live in the Glebe or not, there are things you might not notice walking by that you will see in a photograph.”

While the brief exhibition is officially over, the photographs can still be seen at Studio Sixty Six, upstairs at 858 Bank.

The third exhibit about the city is Dreamtown, a new exhibition of paintings by Andrew King. It appears that King has created a retro look at a futuristic Ottawa, though further details or images were not available before deadline for this column. Dreamtown is at Cube Gallery, 1285 Wellington, from June 6 to 12.

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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.