The bigger picture: a closer look at five pieces of SFU art

There’s more to our campuses than a $20,000 concrete blob that people have sex in

On the Beach (banana for scale), Courtesy of Chris Ho

By: Natasha Tar, Copy Editor 

If you haven’t noticed yet, SFU has a lot of weird and interesting art. I remember that on Welcome Day, first-years got a tour across Burnaby campus and I asked our guide about the strange blue pyramid by the Terry Fox statue. She promptly ignored me and started talking about the infamous Avocado/Sexacado/Egg/Overused Joke, known more professionally as Oval Reflections, leaving me disappointed and wondering whether SFU had a chapter of the Illuminati or something.

As I move through my degree at the SFU Burnaby and Vancouver campuses, I always try to find time to stop and appreciate the paintings and sculptures I stumble across. Unfortunately, when I come across a piece there are always more questions than answers. Who made these little metal people in bikinis by the Trottier Observatory? Why is there a huge colonial painting above Images Theatre? Why do we have a giant hammer on Burnaby campus?

I think we’ve reflected enough on Oval Reflections. It’s time to appreciate some of SFU’s other artwork that you may or may not have ever seen before. It’s time to get some answers to those pesky questions that have nagged me for so long. It’s time to go on an art walk.


Antibes by Marcel Barbeau (1990)

Where: The second floor of the SFU Harbour Centre campus

When: Given as gift in 1997 from Pierre Chamberland

Antibes (banana for scale), Courtesy of Natasha Tar

How many times have you looked at an abstract piece of art and thought, “Pshaw, my five-year-old brother could have done that!” Yeah, I’ve been there, and so it surprised me when I was impressed by Antibes as I encountered it on my way to class at SFU Harbour Centre.

My reaction made sense in comparison to one of Marcel Barbeau’s artistic goals. “I like to surprise and be surprised, because each surprise reveals a little more of the beauty of the world,” he said, according to The Globe and Mail. He also reportedly claimed that he focused on making his paintings vibrant rather than beautiful. To achieve these things, he was known to dance while painting and use the opposite end of the paintbrush.

Barbeau was a figurehead for the “non-figurist” art movement in Canada. Rejecting traditional Québécois art values, he created over 4,000 pieces of art over the span of 70 years, and received multiple distinguished awards. For example, in 2013 he received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and noted, “I find that this comes a bit late. I’m 88 after all. I would have liked to have received it earlier.” That’s some sass I can get behind.

I’ve never been good at analyzing art, but Antibes really tests my limits. A Google search of “Antibes” shows me a coastal town in France. There’s nothing I can find that says Barbeau visited this town, but the piece in a way reflects it nevertheless. The blue background reminds me of the ocean, followed by a long rectangle of orange beach, and the black, white, and grey of mountains. These natural features are present in the town Antibes and in Vancouver. Then again, this is abstract art and it might not be reflecting anything specific at all.


The Shoestring Spirit by Betty Meyers (1994)

Where: On the sixth floor of the Academic Quadrangle

When: Purchased by SFU in 1997

The Shoestring Spirit (banana for scale), Courtesy of Chris Ho

I used to spend a lot of my time wondering around on the sixth floor of the AQ. It’s not a very busy area, so sometimes between classes I’d walk laps around it. There’s quite a bit of art on the walls, including a replica of the Mona Lisa, but one that’s been my favourite for a while is The Shoestring Spirit. I think it’s mostly because of the art-ception aspect of it.

In the oil painting, a person is gesturing to an art piece (that looks suspiciously like The Shoestring Spirit painting itself) inside a place called “Shoestring Gallery.” It turns out that this gallery was real, and exists today as the AKA Gallery. The original Shoestring Gallery was founded by Betty Meyers and four other women from Saskatoon in 1971.

According to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, one of the gallery’s main objectives was to feature the art of Ukrainian and First Nations peoples. Hedlund and Irvine of SFU Galleries commented that “. . . it would appear that [Meyer] advocated for wide public appreciation for contemporary art, including her own.” In general, I’ve always loved volunteer-run art collectives, and the idea of lifting the roof off one in a big city and letting people peak inside is captured in such a cute way with this painting.


Teen BC by Nate Woodbury (2005)

Where: In the Academic Quadrangle across from Images Theatre

When: Given as a gift from the SFU Anti-Colonialism Society in 2005

Teen BC (banana for scale), Courtesy of Chris Ho

This piece was the first-place winner of the Anti-Colonial Art Contest that took place between 2004–05 at SFU. The contest was created as a way to invite artists to question and respond to the huge British Columbia Pageant mural by Charles Comfort. If you feel like you’ve never seen the mural before, you’re probably wrong. It’s hard to miss the 19-metre-long monstrosity that looms above Images Theatre, depicting one of the whitest views of British Columbia’s history available on Burnaby campus. However, Teen BC along with other anti-colonial pieces, were set up to mitigate this.

Teen BC specifically is a mask-sculpture made from materials such as newspaper, fur, and bullets. Hundreds of photographed faces are stuck onto the inside of the mask, and it’s sculpted in a way that prevents it from being worn. It’s held in a glass case with a mirror at the back which reflects the piece, you, and the mural on the opposite wall.

I can tell why it won the contest; it includes all the history that the Comfort mural chose to omit. A railway spike reflects the Canadian Pacific Railway cutting through Indigenous territories. A cross and a ribbon with words like “English school” on it remind the viewer of the residential schools Indigenous children were forced into. The bullets provoke thoughts of violence and force. The creeping white paint that doesn’t completely cover the mask perhaps symbolizes assimilation.

This mask is incredibly detailed and compares “the rhetorical and social glue that binds a newly colonized British Columbia,” according to SFU Galleries.


On the Beach by Geert Maas (1999)

Where: Across from the Trottier Observatory on Burnaby campus

When: Purchased in 2000 and installed in 2002

On the Beach (banana for scale), Courtesy of Chris Ho

This art piece features five chubby bronze people in swimsuits on an elevated platform. For a long time, I simply passed this piece by without looking closer, assuming the five figures were sumo wrestlers or just abstract metal shapes. I’m glad I did decide to walk over to them recently and examine them more thoroughly.

Some details I can now appreciate are the patterns of their hair and clothes as well as their poses. Most of them seem to be lounging in rather comfortable positions, seemingly a world away from SFU Burnaby’s snowing-in-March aesthetic.

Geert Maas once commented that in his art, “The physical placing and spacing of the various figures determines the emotional content of the work.” This piece seems to reflect a family’s trip to the beach. I get this sense especially from the two smaller statues who look like children. One has their mouth wide open, perhaps crying, while the sibling/friend statue closest to them looks towards them, worried. Did this little kid just get sand in their eyes? Did the other kid throw it? Nearby, the statue that I interpret as an older male figure looks on, not wanting to get involved in the kids’ hijinks.

Maas himself is known worldwide, and his work is featured in over 30 countries. He moved from the Netherlands to Kelowna in 1979 and started a sculpture garden that features his works across sprawling lawns. Entry is by donation if you ever find yourself nearby.

The piece’s placement may be significant. According to Christina Hedlund, SFU Galleries collections manager, and Karina Irvine, an SFU Galleries coordinator, “it would seem that given the shared space the courtyard in the center [sic] of the AQ encourages that this work reflects a similar feeling: what it means to be together.”

As a side note, On the Beach as well as Oval Reflections were once yarn bombed quite beautifully.


Man by Michael Dennis (1998)

Where: Outside of Technology and Science Complex I on Burnaby campus

When: Given as a gift from Dennis in 2011

Man (banana for scale), Courtesy of Chris Ho

I have many thoughts about this one. Many. Firstly, where did Michael Dennis keep this giant hammer between its creation in 1998 and its presentation to SFU in 2011? That I don’t know. What I did learn is that Dennis specializes in sculptures that mimic human attributes. For example, one of his earlier works, Reclining Woman, is a cedar sculpture that reflects the shape of a woman lounging with her legs spread apart. Burnaby Art Gallery claims that Man “contemplates the concept of masculinity” while SFU Art Galleries Public Art Guide says that many of Dennis’ works “are carved to suggest anthropomorphic forms.” What does this imply for the sculpture?

It is a giant penis.

What else could it be? A hammer is basically a long, hard piece of wood encased by two stones, side by side. It’s called Man for goodness’ sake. But that’s just one person’s interpretation.

Looking at it in a more serious light, I can see that its placement on campus (outside one of the science complexes) might be significant. It’s a tool that reflects innovation, building, and strength. Hedlund and Irvine of SFU Galleries tell me that the hammer is a “. . . reference to the logging industry and labour” and that it’s “. . . one of the oldest tools in our historical record in relation to the number of tools now used by different departments across campus . . .” This makes sense in university setting, and reminds us of all the work we do.

That said, if you are getting sick of Oval Reflections, just remember that alongside a bunch of other incredible art, there is a large phallus sitting on Burnaby campus.