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Waving Goodbye to the Big Red Hand

Artist Nickelas Johnson atop his piece, Ripp’d Off & Red, during installation in The Quarters in 2012. Supplied

In the summer of 2012, the Edmonton Arts Council engaged Kendal Henry (now the Director of the Percent for Art Program in New York City) to curate a transitory (short-term) public art installation to reflect and explore the revitalization underway in the Quarters/Boyle Street areas. Known as Dirt City :: Dream City, the project featured 14 works by local artists that ranged from a community garden to live performance to large-scale installations.

One of the most impactful of these works was Ripp’d Off & Red by Nickelas Johnson. Also known as “the big red hand”, the artwork has been a fixture in the community since its installation as part of Dirt City :: Dream City. Originally located at Jasper Avenue and 95th Street, the artwork has been sited at 96th Street and 104th Avenue for some time.

While public support for Dirt City :: Dream City as a whole was strong, Ripp’d Off & Red was a particularly resonant piece for the community. In recognition of its impact, the City of Edmonton purchased the artwork in order to keep it installed in the area after the temporary Dirt City :: Dream City project concluded.

Over the past eight years, the Edmonton Arts Council’s Public Art Conservation team has done maintenance to increase the lifespan of the artwork. Though originally created as a transitory piece, EAC has addressed coatings, drainage, sealants, and structural reinforcements as part of the regular maintenance of the City’s collection. However, the staff has now determined that repair and reconstruction are no longer feasible, both from an aesthetic and structural perspective. For public safety, a fence has been constructed around the artwork, and it is scheduled to be removed from the site later this month.

Artist Nickelas Johnson kindly provided YEGarts the following reflection about the project:

“After spending an immersive week learning about the history of the Quarters from community leaders and Elders, I elected to build a massive red hand, severed at the wrist. The hand was intended to symbolize a community cut-off, ignored yet vibrantly visible on the side of the road. The gesture, an open palm, communicated both an offer to help and a desire for the same.

The on-site installation proved to be a moving and inspiring experience. There was a constant flow of welcome interruptions from folks on the street inquiring about the sculpture and telling me what it meant to them. One houseless fellow named Crusty spent the day silently observing the installation, then approached and volunteered to protect the tarped-in sculpture overnight until it received its protective coating of paint. We arrived the next morning to find Crusty smiling triumphantly beside the sculpture, proud to have protected it from the elements or interference. We shared a breakfast cradled in the palm of the hand.

Many residents of the Quarters community expressed gratitude and appreciation for a sculpture that spoke to them. Ultimately, the City of Edmonton offered to purchase Ripp’d Off & Red, to remain installed in the Quarters.

Since that time, there has been some online controversy about the intent of the piece, some of which I initially addressed but ultimately chose to let the art continue to speak for itself. The overwhelming feedback from community members has been humbling and galvanizing to me as an artist. It has helped me understand that art is as much an ear as an object.

I’m grateful to the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton for facilitating this experiment and allowing it to age, as was the artful intent, for as long as was safe for the public.”

When asked about the deaccessioning – the process by which a work of art is permanently removed from a collection – EAC Director of Public Art & Conservation David Turnbull explains, “The process is one that can be initiated for several reasons. In this case it was necessitated by the condition of the artwork, but deaccessioning can also be recommended in cases where the site of the artwork has changed.”

As part of this process, the artist is contacted, and once the work is deaccessioned, the rights and artwork revert to the artist. “This artwork held an important place in the community, and we want to honour that by ensuring that the public understands the reason behind this decision,” says Turnbull. “Deaccessioning is actually indicative of a healthy, living collection.”

Article reposted by permission from the Edmonton Arts Council’s blog.

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