Public Art and Creating Community

David Garneau’s Tawatinâ Bridge reviewed
By David McGonigal-Videla
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo Credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo credit: David McGonigal-Videla.

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The Tawatinâ Bridge spans the North Saskatchewan River, between the Cloverdale and Riverdale communities of the city of Edmonton. Looking east, the bridge sits uncomfortably in the heavily wooded river bend. We don’t necessarily expect beauty from transportation conduits and structures. While the bridge is ugly, it fits into the visual language of highways and Brutalist style buildings. Even from a distance, the pedestrian walkway underneath is bustling with moving figures, looking up and pointing, talking, and discussing, slowly shuffling from one end of the bridge to the other and back again.
In artist David Garneau’s Tawatinâ Bridge public art installation, 550 individual paintings are affixed to the underside of the Tawatinâ Bridge, fully covering the 260-meter-long walkway. You must stop and crane your neck up to appreciate the work, while suspended over the river. And in this physical state of suspension, people stop to talk to each other, to look up and admire the paintings and discuss them with strangers.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo Credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
“Tawatinâ” translates to “valley” in Cree, and each image is related to the various aspects of the Amiskwaciy Waskahikan (Beaver Hills House) region: ecological (flora and fauna), Indigenous life and culture, Métis tradition, and the artist’s familial history. In 2016 Métis artist David Garneau was commissioned to paint the images lining the underbelly of the bridge, which is also the ceiling for the public walkway beneath. Ranging in size from approximately 20 centimeters in diameter to over 6 meters, the images were painted on aluminum Dibond (a composite material) over the course of three years and sat in storage for another two, before finally being bolted to the concrete ceiling in October of 2021. The bolts, placed for security rather than aesthetics, interfere with some images but despite that there is a certain beauty to this method. Streams and rivers of saturated concrete bloom from the edges of the Dibond icons, emulating both the river below and the pictorial rivers depicted in the many maps which adorn the ceiling.

Close to the south entrance are three photographs: one of Laurent Garneau, one of Eleanor Garneau, and one of Chief Papaschase and his community. A layering of painted Métis Beadwork and intricate patterns of brightly coloured flowers, intersect with the sepia tones of the photographs. Paintings of this traditional beading are found all along the stretch of the bridge, an important aspect of Métis culture and community. These photographs illuminate a shared familial history between David Garneau and Chief Calvin Bruneau of the Papaschase First Nation. “Part of my research, and not just with this project, was to reconnect with Chief Papaschase [Calvin Bruneau] and to renew that friendship as a form of reconciliation. We’ve done a few projects together. So, some of those traces are in the paintings themselves, little elements,” says Garneau. The Chief took care of the Garneau family during Laurent’s 1885 imprisonment. After the family left their Edmonton River lot and moved to St. Paul, Laurent heard of Papaschase’s own troubles. Laurent built a cabin on his land for Papaschase and his wife, in which they lived for the rest of their years.

Garneau painted about half of the acrylic images himself, with assistance on the rest from Madhu Kumar and other artists from around the Prairies. AJA Louden and a crew of Edmonton-based street artists painted the graffiti images. Members of the public were also encouraged to submit ideas for artwork in the form of personal histories, memories, and stories they felt should be represented. This included the original crossing replaced by the Tawatinâ Bridge. The Cloverdale Footbridge had been an integral part of the community for years but was torn down in 2016 to make way for the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) Valley Line expansion. “I wanted to honour the fact that the community had sort of co-created the aesthetics of the space, they made something of it themselves”, said Garneau. Many of the simple carvings etched into the planks and railings, and echoes of life built up over the years, were photographed and transferred to Dibond. The carvings now grace the south entrance of the walkway, as a memorial to what had come before.

Rekindling and sharing stories of the community of the river valley are integral to the Tawatinâ Bridge. Much of the artwork was co-created with Indigenous Elders, including Chief Bruneau and Jerry Saddleback. Through in-person discussion and video calls, research undertaken at the Royal Alberta Museum and Fort Edmonton, and research in the city archives and libraries, Garneau slowly built up a bank of stories, histories, and imagery to be created on the Dibond. As more and more paintings were completed, there was a shift in how Garneau approached the project. “The sense I got was the importance of being generative, [and to] not just illustrate. So, there are some things up there which are not a part of customary or historical culture, but they’re just something I felt I need to put up there.” One such painting is the skeleton in a canoe, an image which came from a dream. Garneau has his own interpretation, just as Saddleback has his, and just as the viewer will have their own story for the piece.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo Credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Integral to this co-creation is a respect and application of Indigenous methodology. It was a gift for Garneau to be told these oral histories and to transcribe them into imagery, but he said that it is not his place to tell them. He refused to provide any form of didactic or explanation to the City of Edmonton to accompany the works. Instead, the artist will be organizing public walks along the bridge with the Elders who assisted in the project. Here they can guide visitors through the paintings, elaborating on them as they relate to their experiences and knowledge, sharing the oral histories which informed the process.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo Credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Tawatinâ Bridge. Photo credit: David McGonigal-Videla.
Because of this interpretive approach, Garneau explained the meanings he ascribed to some images but not others. For example, a highly detailed gleaming strawberry inside the icon of a heart represents the strawberry’s use as a traditional heart medicine. In fact, most of the plant life depicted is from the region and each has specific medicinal uses. Even images which might seem easily interpreted have connections which reach outside of the art. For example, a riverbank within the icon of an otter, or the crowd of small fish encasing an image of river stones and running water. These types of images reflect the ecological life of the river valley, not just in content but in the colour scheme as well. If the viewer looks out at the river and recognizes these elements within the work, they might consider the ecology of the area more broadly.
A bridge is a conduit. You travel between Point A and B but are not meant to stop in the middle. A bridge is an abject, “nothing space”, as described by Garneau. As a blank slate, meaning is ascribed to these spaces by the individual and by the community, as was done with the Cloverdale Footbridge. While this desire for individual interpretation is recognized, the work is also an intentional injection of meaning and dialogue into the space, prompting the viewer to investigate the history and culture of the river valley without being prescriptive. As detailed in Garneau’s research at the city’s museums and through discussions with Elders, the resources to learn are there for the public. But for Garneau, the joy of the work comes from the community created on the bridge itself, by looking up and thinking, and talking about what you see with both friends and strangers. “People can tell their own stories, and I love that”.
David McGonigal-Videla
David McGonigal-Videla is a multicultural writer and artist.
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