Drawing comfort from art
When I began my undergraduate studies at McGill in the mid-eighties, I wasn’t terribly confident about my ability to fit in. My parents hadn’t gone to university, nor had my grandparents. In my extended family, I knew of only a single cousin who had made the leap before me.
I grew up in a largely working-class neighbourhood where university educations weren’t the norm and I attended a notoriously rough-and-tumble high school that wasn’t known for being an academic launching pad (though, in fairness, plenty of my former classmates went on to university). When I once mentioned my old high school to a friend familiar with its unsavoury reputation, she reacted with the sort of startled gasp that might have been more appropriate to discovering that I had once served on a Kingston Penitentiary chain gang.
As a callow young Montrealer, I hadn’t fully grasped McGill’s international stature until I had attended classes there for a few weeks (it is distressingly easy to be blasé about what’s remarkable in your own home town). Once I did begin to encounter brainy students from all over the place who were thrilled to be at McGill, well, that only made matters worse. What had I gotten myself into?
In the early going, I spent much of my time going back and forth between the Arts and Stephen Leacock buildings where most of my courses took place. So I became quite familiar with pop art master Roy Lichtenstein’s Abstraction, a tapestry I would encounter frequently as I made my way from one building to the other. I had grown up devouring comic books and Lichtenstein’s famously comics-influenced style produced a work of art that provided an oddly comforting presence as I made my way to my classes. A little slice of my old life present in my new surroundings. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since.
I imagine everyone who has ever studied at McGill has his or her own favourite work of art on campus. Perhaps the Three Bares fountain was a regular meeting spot for you and your friends and you’d drink in its kitschy charms before trekking off to Amelio’s for pizza or to the Peel Pub for beer. Or maybe you’d find yourself admiring the graceful athleticism of R. Tait McKenzie’s The Falcon as you waited for the other members of your study group to turn up outside the McLennan Library. Hopefully, you’ll spot something you like in this issue’s photo essay, “A Feast for the Eyes.”
David Covo, BSc(Arch)’71, BArch’74, an associate professor of architecture and the head of the visual arts committee that helps oversee the varied items in McGill’s collection, has his own faves. One of them is Icarus, artist Catherine Widgery’s steel and wood mobile which presents its own unique take on the classic Greek myth above the heads of passersby on the ground floor of the Leacock Building. “It’s a wonderful interpretation of the myth,” says Covo. “It constantly reconfigures itself as you walk towards it, underneath it, or around it.”
Sometimes someone might get a little too fond of a particular work. Decades ago, when security measures were, perhaps, a little more lax, a painting vanished from campus. About a dozen years ago, it reappeared, wrapped in a nondescript package that was sent to the principal’s office. Inside was an anonymous note that explained how the work had been pilfered by a former student. The note writer, the thief’s wife, further explained that she had been hounding her husband for years to return the work. Finally, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Art might occasionally steer some of us in the wrong direction, but, thankfully, it generally reaches out to our nobler instincts.
Daniel McCabe, BA’89