Statue Of No Limitations

At the intersection of Albert and Elgin in Ottawa, just outside the National Arts Centre, is a figure portrait, the work of Ruth Abernethy, in honour of the music and personality of Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson. Seeing it is an unexpected thrill, even in a city full of stunning statues, plaques, carved words.  Turn up the volume on your computer, and take a look, listen at something different.

It demands that you notice and contemplate Peterson's joy. His is not the carved face of a typical Father of Confederation, a prime minister, a judge or any other citizen hero.  Really, how many sculptors have the courage to capture their subjects in anything but the most severe, stern, awful facial expressions? I don't disparage those works. I'm just glad this is different, and that bronze has been taught to smile.

I think Peterson has just finished playing something live and has turned to accept the applause of the audience. But he also seems to be contemplating that applause, remembering the past, the journey, the difficulties and obstacles. He seems to be remembering Montreal. And, maybe, he can't quite believe where he is. And he appears grateful.

The statue is also very different because it sits not on a pedestal, but on a concrete sidewalk. The piano legs, the piano bench, the feet of the artist connect to the earth. The prime ministers ask you to look up, way up and contemplate them against the eternity of the sky.

Shelagh and Oscar
But this hero says I am with you, man. Right where you are, right where your gaze goes. I am not asking you to worship me. I just want you to listen to the music.

The statue also invites you in. The visitor to Oscar's statue can either go to the keyboard and strike a pose, creating a charming picture of teacher and student, or sit down next to the musician on the piano bench. Put your arm around him. Lean in close. The effect is thrilling. When have you ever done that with Sir John A. Macdonald?

But what I enjoyed most about the Oscar Peterson statue is how it speaks to its surroundings. This is not Queen Victoria in the tombstone-booked silence of the parliamentary library. It doesn't smell like pine. Because this is a statue that comes with speakers from which flow a loop of Peterson's music. Those brilliant notes are added to the urban soundscape of conversations between passing pedestrians, car horns, bus swooshes, and fire truck sirens. The noises are always different. Somehow, the statue has, in the process, become improvisational amidst the utterances of hyper-organized city life.

At times, the din even obliterates the music. But, in time,  the music comes back. It was always there. It makes you consider what abides, what is an intrusion.


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