Blue Bridge Art Show

by Mollie Kaye, September 2010

Can art and celebration generate more local appreciation of this world-famous landmark?

When I first met the Johnson Street Bridge seven years ago, I was a wide-eyed tourist gawking at the spectacular raising of the decks; a proud local explained the history and mechanism to me. The utilitarian romance of funky old things thrills me, and always has. As an art student, I wore an 80-year-old pocket-watch on a chain. When asked for the time, I would ceremonially produce the ancient thing and pop open the spring-loaded case. It was not simply a timepiece; it was a piece of time.

And so it is with the bridge. When it slowly rears up its decks to allow marine traffic to pass below, I get the same rush. When I drive over it, the vibration of the steel tickles our bums and my kids giggle and hum along. 

Nic Vandergugten, a painter and printmaker whose bohemian family was deeply rooted in the 1980s Chinatown art scene, has had a lifelong bond with Big Blue. “It’s a big part of my history. The bridge is a link to my immediate past, my childhood...[it] was ever-present; if we left the city, we would come back and hear the drone of the bridge and that would mean we were home.”

This past June, Vandergugten and artist Elisa Yon organized a show at the Buon Amici cafe. Yon, an architect and printmaker, was inspired by her travels to European cities, rich in what she calls “layers of built form,” where the modern is added right alongside, or even on top of, the ancient. She and Vandergugten asked fellow artist Alain Costaz at the Ground Zero print cooperative to create a collection of works with the Johnson Street Bridge as the subject matter, encouraging Victorians to see Old Blue in new ways and to appreciate the structure’s vital role in the unique layering and texture of our own city. 

“I’ve always loved the bridge, so I started drawing it from different angles,” says Vandergugten, who notes that his attitude toward the bridge shifted as it became the subject of his linocuts. “At first I had less of an opinion, but after making a bunch of drawings of it, it breathed a new life, and I felt more attached to it. I’d be sad to see it go. It definitely has a rugged beauty to it. The shapes [the bridge] creates, you see an interesting framing of downtown looking at it that way. It just fits. To have a new, sleek, sexy bridge sticking out of lower Johnson street—I just don’t think it’s the way we should go.”

Martin Machacek, a local painter whose life began in Prague (a multi-layered city if ever there were one), painted his portrait of the bridge (featured on the cover of this edition of Focus) as part of the Local Colours show last year. “One or two other people were doing the bridge, but from farther away,” Machacek explains. “I chose to do just the bridge alone” and in his characteristic style, wavy verticals and haywire horizontals creating a drama-infused image in which the bridge takes on biblical qualities. With the chiaroscuro of the storm sky behind it, the sunlit bridge is a hero, raising its gates like swords of victory.

“From an artist’s point of view, it’s very intriguing,” Machacek continues. “I do have a soft spot for it. I used to come to Victoria when I was little, and [the bridge] was something that I associate with the city.” While he is happy to display the bridge piece, he is keeping it as part of his private collection, something he rarely does. “I paint the things I do to bring awareness and the artist’s perspective to the structures we forget about, or walk by and take for granted.”

Machacek spends each day on the causeway, displaying his work and talking with tourists, so he knows what they’re up to here. “You see people stopping and taking photographs of [the bridge]; it’s an engineering phenomenon. A lot of people come here specifically just to see the Blue Bridge.” 

I am shocked to hear this. They’re coming here just for the bridge? But Nic Vandergugten confirms it; he rode a pedicab as his summer job years ago, and the bridge was either the only or main reason tourists came here. “The Empress, the Parliament Buildings, the bridge. But often it was just for the bridge.” 

If Victoria is indeed a mecca for bridge enthusiasts from all around the world (who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and buy merchandise), why aren’t we unanimously united in an effort to preserve it, if only as a valuable tourist draw? Ross Crockford, a local writer and historian who is leading the effort to preserve the structure, thinks that art and celebration may be the best way to generate more local—and international—enthusiasm and appreciation for this world-famous landmark. 

He points to Portland, Oregon, which just had its first annual PDX Bridge Festival. This hugely successful, two-week-long extravaganza of bridge-centred art, music, parades, picnics, and Christo-esque installations gives us a clear vision of the bounty we can harvest from our own rare, twin-basculed beauty (see www.pdxbridgefestival.org). 

Crockford is putting out the call to local artists to participate in a Blue Bridge art show on November 12 (a week before the referendum on the bridge) at Studio 16 1/2 in Fan Tan Alley. Crockford admits he’s already received many artful photos of Big Blue, so is particularly interested in seeing some inspired creations in other media—video to ceramics, sculpture, “you name it.”

As with all things we value, “It’s a matter of perception,” says Crockford. “In Portland, they don’t regard these old bridges as rusting eyesores, they regard them as historic connections, and they celebrate that.” Over the past year, he says, various people have written to the paper, saying the Blue Bridge is ugly, “as if that’s some reason to get rid of it. But clearly, artists have a different point of view. They find it interesting and unusual and distinctive.”

To participate in the Blue Bridge Art Show, contact Ross Crockford at rosscrockford@telus.net. To learn more about the efforts to preserve the Blue Bridge, go to www.johnsonstreetbridge.org.

Writer Mollie Kaye is excited about the possibility of a Victoria Bridge Festival, featuring a Mardi-Gras-style parade over the bridge followed by a light-festooned processional of boats underneath.