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Art on the TTC

Text by Eli McIlveen

Originally posted in 2002

Toronto's early subways date back to an era of no-frills design. Its stations, at their best, were tidy and efficient - at worst, they were drab and institutional. Over time, however, the system has become a hidden art gallery, home to more than two dozen pieces scattered along the subway and streetcar routes.

The Spadina Line

A good place to start a tour of TTC art is with the Spadina subway line. Opened in 1978, it broke from tradition with its ambitious architecture, and the incorporation of at least one artwork into each new station.

Spadina's namesake station has not one but three pieces. Two appear inside the newer northern entrance on Kendal Avenue, which was built into an existing brick house at 85 Spadina Road. In its stairwell is Louis de Niverville's playful and surreal enamel mural "Morning Glory", and just inside the turnstiles is "Barren Ground Caribou", an enormous quilt by Joyce Weiland depicting a group of caribou on the tundra. And inside the main entrance building, on the northeast corner of Bloor and Spadina, is yet another work. Standing just beyond the stairs are three massive cedar house posts depicting the owl, wolf and hawk, and carved by Fedelia O'Brien, Murphy Green and Chuck Heit of the Gitksan First Nation in British Columbia.

One stop north, James Sutherland's coloured glass mosaic, "Spadina Summer Under All Seasons" - possibly the most remarked-upon work in the subway - decorates the walls of Dupont Station. Two enormous mosaics depicting a flower in cross-section face one another across the platform, and several more flowers line the walls of the mezzanine level, recalling old botanical illustrations and a hint of Georgia O'Keeffe. Outside the station, Ron Baird designed the monumental entrance doors to the TTC's Dupont St. electrical substation, with their interlocking circular design.

Continuing north, Gordon Rayner's "Tempo", a colourful and dynamic mural of abstract stripes, overlooks the tracks at St. Clair West from the wall of the mezzanine. At Eglinton West is Gerald Zeldin's "Summertime Streetcar", a cheerful mural depicting a classic PCC streetcar approaching and receding.

Lawrence West's northern entrance is home to "Spacing ... Aerial Highways", a mural by Claude Breeze, and on Wilson Station's mezzanine level is "Canyons" by Ted Bieler, a craggy and decidedly geological-looking aluminum relief. Bieler teaches at York University (as does Breeze), and has a number of sculptures on display around the city, notably at the corner of Front and University, and at U of T's Medical Sciences Building.

It's worth noting here two memorable works from the original Spadina Line which have been dismantled. At Glencairn, "Joy", the glass skylight by well-regarded Canadian abstract colourist Rita Letendre, was taken down at the artist's request, the panels having faded from years of exposure to sunlight. The other lost work was Michael Hayden's spectacular "Arc-en-ciel" at Yorkdale station. A custom-built computer system originally controlled a series of 158 multicoloured neon tubes which lit up the vaulted glass roof above the platform, forming a 570-foot-long rainbow. As trains pulled into the station, the computer, which was tied into the signalling system, caused the lights to pulsate in sequence. The computer system, state of the art in 1978, became too difficult to repair in the decades that followed, and the work was removed in the early 1990s.

Downsview, the newest station in the subway system, features Arlene Stamp's coloured tile work on the curving wall that surrounds the stairway up to the bus platform. Outside, John McKinnon's "Boney Bus" sits in front of the station, a doodle of a bus solidified into giant metal beams. McKinnon hopes "that the playful look of the sculpture will act as a complement to the cool machine aesthetic of the surrounding station."

(Those interested in transportation of various sorts may also be interested in McKinnon's current project, at the former site of the Gardiner Expressway's eastern spur. Among other things, the plan will see a number of the concrete pillars supporting the highway and its on-ramps rehabilitated and decorated with plaques bearing maps and photos, and slowly overgrown with ivy.)

The Yonge Line

Whereas the Spadina artworks were installed when the line was built, those on the Yonge line appeared one by one, through donations or new construction.

At the far northern end of the system, Finch Station's mezzanine features a sculpture by Krystyna Sadowska entitled "Rhythm Of Exotic Plants". A lively piece of abstract metalwork, it is dated 1965, some years before the subway's northern extension was built.

The platform at North York Centre features Nicholas Graven's "North York Heritage Murals", a set of mosaics depicting life in the historic villages that later came to comprise that city. Unfortunately, the latter-day construction of the station around the existing tracks left the central concrete wall in place. The narrow gaps in this wall make it difficult to get a good view of the murals from opposite sides of the tracks.

Charles Pachter, a Canadian icon probably best remembered for his mischievous pop-art paintings of Queen Elizabeth astride a moose, created a pair of murals for College Station depicting another set of Canadian icons. Created in 1984, when nearby Maple Leaf Gardens was still the home of hockey in Toronto, "Hockey Knights In Canada" shows the Leafs facing off against the Montreal Canadiens across the tracks. In addition, photos of famous Leafs adorn the walls of the platform and mezzanine.

One stop south, at Dundas, is William McElcheran's "Cross Section", a busy scene of shoppers, dogs, portly fedora-wearing businessmen and other commuters. Sculpted in terra cotta and fired in two-foot-square sections, the mural covers the walls by the underground entrance to the Atrium on Bay, and even spills over into the downstairs passage between platforms.

And finally, "Our Nell" celebrates the history and architecture around Queen Station. John Boyle's painted mural appears on the platforms on either side, starring Nellie McClung, New City Hall and the Eaton Centre.

The Spadina Streetcar Line

With the reinstatement of streetcars on Spadina Avenue in 1997, the City of Toronto also took the opportunity to sponsor a public art competition, with an emphasis on local history and culture. The result is a series of tall, coloured poles along Spadina, from Front Street all the way to Sussex, each bearing a sculpture by a local artist.

Randy and Berenicci's "Social Theatre" is a collage of historic scenes, from May Day marches to Lion Dances, framed by bars to mimic a series of old telephone poles. At Dundas, a pair of poles, entwined with creatures from Chinese legend, marks each of Chinatown's streetcar platforms. The shape of figures, created by Millie Chen, combine with the poles to form the character for "gateway".

Further up the street, several works by David Hlynsky and Shirley Yanover mark the entrance to Kensington Market, and the intersection at Sullivan Street. A pair of chickens, sculpted in wire by Tom Burrows and entitled "Fowl Play", overlook College Street. And "Places in a Book" by Stephen Cruise, at Willcocks, Harbord and Sussex, recounts the history of the University colleges and other places nearby. Cruise also created "Uniform Measure/Stack" to mark the fashion district, a giant thimble resting on a stack of buttons on the northwest corner of Richmond and Spadina.

Beyond Sussex, the streetcars duck down into the loop at Spadina Station. Above, on the southeast corner of Bloor and Spadina, is another creation, part artwork, part garden. Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes recall both the area's natural history and local pastimes with a combination of native plant species, and oversized game pieces that double as benches.

"Spadina Line"

Finally, let's end the tour where we started: on the Spadina subway line. While not part of any TTC facility, "Spadina Line" by Brad Golden and Norman Richards is certainly of interest to fans of the TTC and rail in general.

It's on Spadina Road just north of Dupont Station. Like the Bloor Parkette, it's indicative of a recent trend in public art: the integration of artwork into the fabric of a site, so that visitors may discover it a little at a time.

If you were to walk south along the west side of the street, starting from the Baldwin Steps below Casa Loma, you'd soon come upon the word "IROQUOIS", spelled out in bronze letters set into the sidewalk. A few steps further on is another: "FURROW". These continue all the way to the railway bridge between MacPherson and Dupont - seven in all.

Under the bridge itself are a vault, a clock, and a set of bars marking the equinoxes and solstices. On the door of the vault are five more words. "COAL", "CHESTNUT", "SCHEDULE", "WHISTLE", "STEAM". Each set of words hints enigmatically at the history of the site: one set for the street and the other for the rails above and below it. "Iroquois" refers to the hill on which Spadina and Casa Loma are built, once the shore of prehistoric Lake Iroquois; "Archive" to the Toronto Archives just across the street; and so on.

The art to come

Back on the TTC, plenty of new art is on the way. The next piece to appear will be "Breaking Ground", a dramatic quilt designed by Laurie Swim. It vividly depicts the 1960 Hogg's Hollow disaster, when five Italian-born workers on the site of a new water main tunnel perished following a tunnel collapse. The quilt will be on display within a few weeks on the mezzanine level of York Mills Station, not far from the site of the accident.

For new construction projects, the TTC now allocates up to 0.5 percent of the budget for each station for artwork and special finishes. Having learned from their experiences with the Spadina line, the Commission now stipulates that artwork be durable and easy to maintain, either integrated into the station's wall surfaces or housed in a tempered-glass display case.

So when the Sheppard subway line opens in 2002, each of the new stations will incorporate artistic touches into its construction. In particular, Stacey Spiegel's tiled photo-murals at Sheppard/Yonge, showing scenes along the "world's longest street", are sure to be admired. Outside the station, the exit building on the southeast corner will feature a bronze sculpture by Robin Collyer entitled "Campfire". In addition to the sculpture itself, the texture of the bronze sculpture may even be carried over to a bank machine located along a nearby wall.

Further east, Panya Clark Espinal's anamorphically stretched, colour-splashed designs will be a lively addition to Bayview Station. And at the line's eastern end, Don Mills station will reflect the geology and natural history of its area thanks to its art concept by Stephen Cruise, creator of several of the works along the Spadina streetcar route.

Art on the TTC Image Archive

Other sites to visit

  • Ted Bieler ("Canyons" at Wilson Station).
  • Rita Letendre ("Joy" at Glencairn Station, now dismantled)
  • Thinking Lightly - Michael Hayden's portfolio on his company's site includes two photos of "Arc-en-ciel" at Yorkdale, and a brief clip of the work in motion appears in a Quicktime video.
  • Charles Pachter ("Hockey Knights In Canada" at College Station)
  • Art On Spadina - the City of Toronto's pages profiling the various works along the Spadina streetcar route.
  • Brad Golden and Lynne Eichenberg - information on their work, including "Spadina Line". The site also includes the Robert Fulford article that finally revealed to me the significance of the words (see References).
  • Sheppard Subway - the TTC's pages on the project include mockups of how the station interiors will look, and information on the works.

References and acknowledgements

  • June Ardiel, Sculpture/Toronto: An Illustrated Guide to Toronto's Historic and Contemporary Sculpture, Leidra Books, Toronto (Ontario), 1994.
  • Robert Fulford, Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto (Ontario), 1995.
  • Phinjo Gombu, 'Workers met death beneath the Don: Remembering the five who perished at Hogg's Hollow', Toronto Star, February 10, 2000
  • Bill Taylor, 'Making monoliths from the dreams of old highways', Toronto Star, April 13, 2000.
  • 'Sheppard Subway - Sheppard-Yonge Station public art competition', TTC report, November 3, 1999.

Many thanks to Susan Reed Tanaka of the TTC's Engineering Department, Sandra Lougheed at the City of Toronto, and other folks at both the TTC and the City who pointed me in the right direction.

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