Playtime sculpture at Children's Hospital brings fun to public art

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      Vancouver-based artists Myfanwy MacLeod and Shannon Oksanen are behind the whimsical new public art piece that has been erected on campus at the B.C. Children’s and B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.

      Beyond providing neighbours, patients, and visitors of the hospital with an eye-catching conversation piece, the artists are breaking the norm by encouraging viewers to actively engage with the piece in a tactile sense, too.

      MacLeod and Oksanen, who have collaborated in the past and have known each other for more than 25 years, were selected after proposing their public art project to the board of the B.C. Children’s and B.C. Women’s Redevelopment Project, which is responsible for the facility’s major renovations. The board first put out the call to artists in 2013.

      “We were looking for something site-specific, in that we wanted a Canadian artist, for one; and two, we wanted artists that were sensitive to our environment and would understand our vision of whimsy and playfulness,” says Eleanor Lee, senior director of design and implementation for the project, during an interview at the hospital with the Straight, MacLeod, and Oksanen.

      Myfanwy MacLeod and Shannon Oksanen’s Playtime.
      Amanda Siebert

      The two artists were invited to bring forth a concept, and, in keeping with the themes and ideas suggested by the board, they created a series of sculptures that reflect the family unit.

      “Shannon and I were both interested in playground design, and that was kind of the starting point,” MacLeod says. MacLeod is the artist behind The Birds, a wildly popular set of sculptures installed at Olympic Village. “We started looking at these modernist play sculptures—the work of artists like Henry Moore, John Bridgeman, and Barbara Hepworth. A lot of their work looks at patterns of the body, and if you look at the titles, some are about the idea of family. From the start, it was very important that we thought about families and who would use these sculptures.”

      MacLeod and Oksanen created a total of five pieces that are collec-tively titled Playtime. Grouped in an open area off Heather Street and West 30th Avenue, along the newly constructed Wellness Walkway—a 1.8-kilometre path that circles the property—the sculptures are part of the overall hospital improvements that are currently under way.

      “What it does is encourage people to get outside by providing a space and welcoming paths for a journey around campus,” Lee says. She adds that although Queen Elizabeth Park and VanDusen Botanical Garden are within walking distance of the hospital, they are often too far for sick patients and their families to get to.

      Myfanwy MacLeod and Shannon Oksanen’s Playtime.
      Amanda Siebert

      In addition to highlighting the new respite area, Playtime will play an important role in providing patients and neighbours of the hospital an engaging piece of contemporary art that children and adults alike are invited to interact with.

      According to the artists, each of the monochromatic, abstract sculptures embodies a different familial role. Oksanen says Two Figures in Orbit, the tallest of the five pieces that make up Playtime, is often referred to by her and MacLeod as the “sisters”. Another called The Family Man resembles a stationary seesaw, while Dryad creates an area for children to crawl into, not unlike the hollow space one might find at the base of an old tree.

      The four small, rounded sculptures comprised by The Magic Stones invite visitors to jump from one to the next as in hopscotch, while the dual spaces in The Musician resemble the finger holes of a trumpet. Made from glass fibre and concrete and milled by a prototyping machine at Heavy Industries in Calgary, each of the sculptures is painted in a different black-and-white pattern. The artists agreed it would make sense to install a play surface like the soft-rubber kind used in playgrounds beneath each sculpture, primarily as a safety precaution, but also to ensure that children—and their parents—feel encouraged to interact with the work.

      Myfanwy MacLeod and Shannon Oksanen’s Playtime.
      Amanda Siebert

      “Part of the problem with public art is that people always want to see things that aren’t going to be climbable, but you can’t stop people—especially kids—from doing that,” MacLeod says. “So we just decided, ‘Why not give way to this natural sort of thing?’ ”

      The project is especially significant to Oksanen, who was a patient at the hospital when she had childhood cancer. While she recognizes that the hospital is in need of updating, she has nothing but positive things to say about the level of care she received and the amenities that were made available to her.

      “I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid,” Oksanen says. “[The art project is] completely thrilling and so personal to me. This hospital has always been incredible and the staff here are all saints. I can remember all the colourful lines along the hallways, and when you’re a kid, those simple things matter so much.”

      With construction still under way, the Wellness Walkway isn’t quite complete, but Playtime was installed in late February and is now open for patients and the public to enjoy.

      “What I love about these pieces is that they’re accessible,” Lee says. “They’re accessible at any time, and that’s one thing, being in a hospital environment, that is really important to us. The abstract forms are open to interpretation, and each sculpture will mean something different to everyone.”

      Myfanwy MacLeod and Shannon Oksanen’s Playtime.
      Amanda Siebert