The bigger picture part 2: (another) closer look at some of SFU’s art

The Faces vs. Edges Series, photo credit to Chris Ho

By: Jennifer Low

As an SFU student entering my third year, I was sure I had seen it all. I’d reflected on Oval Reflections, I had Googled what was going on with the AQ’s Blue Pyramid, and I’d even educated myself on the Mosaic Mural featured in every graduation photo on Instagram. However, until I was given the opportunity to fully explore and research SFU’s public art collections, I’d never realized how many pieces of art I’d simply never noticed or even realized were art!

In the spring of 2018, The Peak shed light on some of the weird and interesting art featured across SFU’s Burnaby campus. It finally provided answers to the questions that have been plaguing us since the day we first looked across from the Trottier Observatory and saw the mysterious swimsuit-clad bronze statues lounging about and mocking our stressed, caffeine-fueled existence. While some questions were answered, there is still so much more we long to know! That’s right: it’s time to go on another art walk.


North Face, photo courtesy of Chris Ho. Banana for scale.

North Face by Peter Hide (1989-1990)

Where: The West Mall Centre Courtyard

When: Gifted to SFU in 1982 from David M. Campbell

I discovered the big welded steel sculpture the way most students discover anything interesting . . . through getting lost and stumbling upon it.

At first, I thought it was just another part of the building. This makes sense considering the fact that Hide’s work is recognized by its use of vertical structures, leading it to become associated with Edmonton-style sculptures. Hide once spoke about his unique perception of form in an interview, stating, “It’s an odd mixture of architecture and sculpture. It’s as if architecture and sculpture have been combined into a single art form, almost. At least the way I feel about it anyway.”

Upon noticing that the stained and varnished structure of welded steel included a plaque marking it as a piece of public art, my first thought was, “Umm. . . what is that supposed to mean?”

Now I’m sure that you have experienced that moment where you stare at a piece of abstract art, looking it up and down, left and right, and then kick yourself for not being able to decipher its meaning. I, for one, have never been the best at analyzing art, but I was fascinated by the sculpture’s strong and commanding presence. Despite its rust-coloured exterior, it seemed powerful.

According to Hide, his rigid and angular sculptures “suggest anthropomorphic feelings or lurking imagery.” This marked Hide’s work moving away from the style of his mentor, British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, whose work was characterized by its use of space and tendency to sprawl. I found this comment very interesting as it made me consider that perhaps the reason I could not decipher the solid meaning of Hide’s work was because I did not consider the sculpture’s meaning to be a feeling, especially when it was constructed out of an inflexible material.

Some have criticized welded metal sculptures, as compact and stiff as this one, for lacking warmth and the emotion that we so often search for in art. Hide has stated that the “steel sculpture has great freedom…to make surprising juxtapositions and scale changes… but it isn’t a warm humanistic material, no. But then I don’t think that great art has to be that, necessarily.”


The Faces vs. Edges Series, photo credit to Chris Ho. Banana for scale.

 The Faces vs. Edges Series by Alan Chung Hung (1981)

Where: The Courtyard off the south concourse of the AQ

When: On Long-term loan to SFU (Created for the Charles H. Scott Gallery’s 1982 exhibition: Infinity vs. Limit A Non-mathematical Dialogue of Self-Identity)

“But I thought those were chairs!” every lazy SFU student protests earnestly as they realize that the five blocks of curved and sharp-edged steel that they’ve been eating their lunch upon are in fact part of Simon Fraser University’s Art Collection. Not to worry: I’m sure they are not alone.

According to the SFU Art Galleries’ Public Art Guide, The Faces vs. Edges Series describes the story of a steel cube’s weathering process. It displays the succession of rounding off each of the cube’s sharp edges, as the six faces of the cube are slowly shaved down to two as its twelve edges are reduced to one.

Perhaps it’s describing how boring lectures wear down a student’s mind, or how professors expect us to produce a strong thesis statement by narrowing our ideas to a single narrow point. I suppose, as it is abstract art, it is up to your interpretation.

The sculptor, Alan Chung Hung, is well known for his outdoor sculptures displayed throughout Vancouver. A few pieces you may recognize include the Monument to George Vancouver (1980) located in Vanier Park and Red Spring (1981) which can be viewed in Robson Square.


Frog Constellation, courtesy of Chris Ho. Banana for scale.

Frog Constellation by James Hart (1995)

Where: Atrium Gathering Space, Saywell Hall

When: Collection of Bill Reid Foundation (2000)

The Atrium, just down the stairs from Saywell Hall is home to a beautiful piece of Haida art carved from red cedar. It is a tribute created by James Hart, one of the Northwest Coast’s most prominent artists, to a shamanic piece from the mid-19th Century.

Apparently, The Frog Constellation is a representation of an old Haida love story. Essentially, a frog king once kidnapped a young man’s girlfriend. The young man, who was unable to find her, encountered a wise old man who advised him on where to search. The young man dug a hole in the ground where the old man told him to look, and millions of frogs erupted from the earth. The last frog that surfaced carried the young man’s love back to him.

I’ve always been a fan of art that depicts the myths, legends and stories of different cultures, so I was fascinated by the story that surrounded Hart’s sculpture. The story features themes of loss, determination, recovery, love, and the combined efforts of the wisdom of elders and the strength of youth to resolve conflict. This makes it a great art piece to interpret and reflect on whilst procrastinating in the atrium.

Hart spent three-and-a-half years on the project,  only for it to go into storage in Vancouver upon its completion in 1995, instead of its intended display location at an office building in California. Hart spent so long working on the project that he refers to the piece as his “PhD” .

Hart’s hard work eventually paid off, as 12 years later, the director of the Bill Reid Foundation and Bill Reid Centre at SFU brought the sculpture back out of storage to give it the recognition and audience it deserves. Now the sculpture has become an iconic part of SFU and it contributes to SFU’s growing collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous art.


Arc de Triomphe, photo courtesy of Chris Ho. Banana for scale.

Arc de Triomphe by Jacques Huet (1967)

Where: North of Convocation Mall, outside the AQ

When: Given as gift in 1999 from Jacqueline Brien

It’s a dog. . . It’s a person with three legs. . . It’s a horse and rider?

The rough and abstract figure of the horse and its rider displayed on the north side of the Convocation Mall is one of those pieces of art that triggers the “oooohh… I can see it now” response. There is nothing quite like that wonderful rush you get when you finally see it.

The SFU Art Galleries’ Public Art Guide suggests that the carving may be a reference to “the tradition of equestrian sculptures monumentalizing important men, or more specifically, the low relief carvings on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris” given the sculpture’s title.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, for which the sculpture was named, was built to honour the soldiers who fought and died for France during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps Brien’s sculpture of the same name was placed at SFU to give strength to students as they march along the corridor to face their final exams, and to commemorate those who never made it out victorious. . .


Guardian II, courtesy of Patrick (knightbefore_99) via Flickr. No banana for scale.

Guardian II by Elza Mayhew (1967)

Where: South of Convocation Mall, outside the AQ

When: Given as gift in 1967 from the Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Ltd.

Elza Mayhew’s Guardian II always reminded me of an ancient artifact like the Rosetta stone, or maybe the “Word of God” tablet from Supernatural. It seems like an antique relic that stubbornly refuses to become irrelevant, as each viewing allows you to discover something new. In other words, it looks like something that Indiana Jones would have been interested in.

According to the SFU Art Galleries Public Art Guide: “Mayhew travelled extensively and her modernist sculptures often recall the ancient architectural and monumental forms that she’d seen in Asia, Europe and Central America.” Some ancient influences in Guardian II’s myriad of geometric shapes and vertical and horizontal lines remind viewers of hieroglyphics, Mayan stelae, and ancient Assyrian bas-relief carvings. Mayhew herself cites architecture as one of her main influences, but states that her work always returns to the human form.

Mayhew’s piece has been called a “Janus sculpture” in reference to the dual-faced ancient Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, doorways, duality, passages, endings and time. He is depicted as two-faced since he looks to both the future and the past. It is fitting that her work was linked to the god, as she was quoted in an interview for the Monday Magazine in 1978 that her works “tie people to their past and future…and are markers in time and of a place.”

Mayhew was so dedicated to her art that she actually suffered brain damage and struggled with mental health as a result of toxic fumes generated by the styrofoam casting moulds she pioneered and created.