Remember those inexplicable, rusted pyramid-like steel structures near the Bloor Street entrance to High Park? The huge ones made of dented industrial steel I-beams and covered in graffiti? Teens used them as a hangout, and the community hated them (mostly), requesting that they be removed from the park. The precariously assembled pieces of steel had become an eyesore and looked perilous to boot, barely recognizable from what they once were.
Called Flower Power, the sculpture is by Mark di Suvero, considered by many to be one of the most significant Modernist sculptors of all time. After a lengthy restoration and reinstallation last week overseen by di Suvero himself, Flower Power has bloomed again on Telegram Mews just west of Spadina Avenue overlooking the railway lands; the parcel of land was donated to the City by Concord Adex.
In March 2009, two of di Suvero’s artworks were removed from High Park and transferred to the artist’s studio in New York for restoration. I am a filmmaker and was asked by the City — which owns both works as part of Toronto’s public art collection — to follow the process from their removal through their re-installation this past week.
In 1967, di Suvero, a rising star on the international art scene, was invited, along with several other artists, to participate in the Toronto International Sculpture Symposium, an event held to celebrate the centenary of Canada becoming a dominion. In an interview for my film di Suvero explained: “There was a guy called Gerry Gladstone [a Canadian sculptor and painter], and he organized British sculptors, an Eskimo sculptor, myself, Israelis – people internationally to come together in Canada in order to build a piece which would remain in High Park.”
“It was a huge effort,” he added, “given by the City to celebrate one moment that was unique in the history of Canada. And we were very glad to be able to do it.”
Di Suvero created two sculptures for the park: one called No Shoes (above), which was situated by a wood at the bottom of a hill, and the towering Flower Power, which rested at the top of the hill. Their titles reflected the ideals of the time: “In 1967 I was very dedicated to an idea, as I am now, that the world can exist in peace,” said the artist.
“I was so young (34 years old), I was so hopeful,” he told me on the day the damaged pieces of the sculptures arrived at his studio in Long Island City, NY. When I told him I’m 34 now, he responded, “See! You know how that feels. You do your best movie and then they put it through the shredding machine.”
Indeed, the artworks didn’t fare well over time – they were misunderstood, neglected, allowed to rust and eventually cut apart. No Shoes lost its free-swinging logs. The top section of Flower Power was cut down due to safety concerns. Their original colours — bright orange and bright red respectively — faded beyond recognition.
Yet despite his disappointment at the neglect, di Suvero was happy to restore and return them to the city, which, along with public art consultant Karen Mills and real estate developer Concord Adex, spearheaded the restoration project. For di Suvero these artworks represent one of the most important moments in his career – with the resources provided to him at the Symposium he was able for the first time to work on a massive scale and with steel I-beams, which have been central to his work ever since.
The artist remembers: “I worked with … a crane operator called Ollie. Ollie taught me a lot working there. I’d never worked with a crane and the reason I’ve gone through this huge effort to re-build the pieces, which were virtually ruined 40 years later, is because I’m really grateful to Toronto. Toronto did a beautiful thing, and allowed me to know what the capacity of having a crane, a cherry picker, torches, and steel in the forms that I needed it, could do. And it was such a good lesson that I gladly have taken on [the restoration] so that the pieces can go back, as if they were, well, not quite new, but back in a different shape again.”
Today, the Flower Power restoration is complete and the piece has been installed in a new location, in Concord’s CityPlace community. The site is located on the west side of Spadina Avenue, just south Front St. near the bridge that traverses the GO tracks. No Shoes will be reinstalled at a yet-to-be determined site sometime in the near future.
Sarah Keenlyside is a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker. Her company Inkblot Media has produced over two-dozen documentaries about public art, many of which can be seen on her website.
Photo of Mark di Suvero and Karen Mills by Fraser Fernie