Q&A with Eric Neighbour on ‘Public Art in Vancouver’

Artist Eric Neighbour's take on how public art creates more liveable cities.

Credit: Courtesy Eric Neighbour

Following my post on Vancouver murals, when I heard about a launch this Friday for a guidebook called Public Art in Vancouver: Angels Among Lions, I decided to track down one of the featured artists, Eric Neighbour, to hear his thoughts on the link between public art and sustainability.


More on public art in Vancouver

Meet authors and artists at the launch for Public Art in Vancouver: Angels Among Lions at Emily Carr University Theatre, Friday May 15 at 7pm.

See Eric Neighbour’s public art:

Woodlands Tree: 705 Woodland Dr.

False Creek Totem: Sutcliffe Park, Granville Island

Dragonfly Project: West 57th Ave @ Cambie

Jabuka: 6205 Kerr St.

Shipwreck: Harbour Green Park

Road Trip this long weekend to see the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park


In the following Q&A, Eric shares his thoughts on community-building and public art. He notes how creating art with members of the public helps his artistic process—and tells us why every art lover should visit Seattle.

Art Darts: How would you describe the link between public art and sustainability? How can public art make our cities more sustainable?

Eric Neighbour: [Through] livability. If our cities are not livable they aren’t sustainable. A billion things go into urban livability, but an important one is ambiance, which is enhanced by interesting (not just pretty) public art.


How and why did you get involved in creating public art projects? How is it different from creating art designed for private spaces like collections or galleries?

Eric Neighbour, public artistEN: I got involved in public art through teaching at a summer camp in 1987. The camp wanted a carving made to replace one that had been torn apart by bears. They asked me if I could include the campers, so I made a 17-foot tall carving titled “Evolution” with the help of 200 kids. I found the work so satisfying that I talked the director into making a 40-ft tall sculpture, titled “Ascent of Man,” over a couple more summers.

I’ve been looking for ways to repeat that exciting experience ever since. I have avoided galleries for the past decade. The public art experience is more satisfying.


One interesting aspect of public art is the connection between artists and audiences during the artistic process. For example, your works like Woodlands Tree and False Creek Totem are created with the help of community volunteers. Why decide on that approach?

EN: All of my public work has been made with the help of community volunteers. The largest, “Shipwreck,” in 2001, included 1,400 people. I do this for a few reasons. Discussions with volunteers help clarify concepts. The inclusion of untrained people helps to de-mystify the [creative] process, and gives the intended audience some ownership of the work before it is installed. Finally and most importantly, I don’t enjoy working alone. It’s lonely. The feeling of orchestrating a group towards a collective goal is fantastic. I feel truly alive.Public Art in Vancouver


Can you speak to the tradition of public art in Vancouver? What are some highlights, in your opinion? What are some challenges?

EN: Public art in Vancouver is pretty young. A decade ago there was almost nothing. Budgets have been mostly too small. It is only with the Olympics looming that public art budgets have finally reached realistic sizes. Will Vancouver experience a public art drought after 2010? 

One of the best things to happen to this city is the Bushlen Mowatt gallery’s Biennale and International sculpture exhibition in English Bay several years ago. [Note from Rob: another biennale is coming up – stay tuned to Art Darts.] I really enjoyed the scale and temporary nature of the exhibitions.

What’s your favourite city in terms of public art?

EN: Seattle is fantastic for its size, because they are strict with the percentage of new building construction budgets that go to public art. It has paid off with a rich variety of interesting work.

Toronto has also really embraced public art—more so than other, more famous cities, like New York or Paris. Spadina and St. Claire Avenues have become public art routes, with continuous work for several kilometres.

Eric Neighbour and group work together on public art work“All of my public work has been made with the help of community volunteers,”

says Eric Neighbour.