Sculptor designs interactive public art for Yellowknife

Sculptor designs interactive public art for Yellowknife
Whitehorse sculptor Philippe Leblond shows his whimsical fountain built from cast off plumbing and kitchen tools. The artist in residence is designing a zoetrope for Yellowknife.Photo: Jack Danylchuk.

When Philippe Leblond turned his mechanical skills to making art, he flipped an old cliché on its head.

“It was starvation,” the Whitehorse artist said last Friday as he explained the inspiration behind the kinetic sculptures on display at the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre.

Leblond is in Yellowknife for the next two weeks as this year’s artist in residence at the Artist Run Community Centre and will lead the design and construction of a zoetrope for the city hall plaza.

“I hope to meet a lot of interesting people and leave Yellowknife with a really cool public sculpture,” said Leblond, who moved to Whitehorse 20 years ago on the promise of a job offer that fell through.

A career bicycle mechanic, Leblond stayed in Whitehorse and opened a repair shop. He began making art pieces on the side, starting with weather vanes decorated with ravens, wolves and dog teams.

“People loved them, but they wanted to buy just the animals, and that turned into a cottage industry.”

Steel is expensive, so Leblond went to the dump for supplies, and cut pieces for the weather vanes with a bandsaw from scavenged refrigerator doors.

“There are so many ways of making and interpreting art,” said Leblond, who found endless possibilities to repurpose found objects.

“A lot of kinetic art is repetitive and predictable. I try and incorporate chaos, but it’s hard to contain chaotic systems. They tend to blow up and run away.”

Two sculptures on display at the Visitors Centre illustrate his point. A rocker fountain fashioned from a mixing bowl and copper tubing mimics the treadle action of a sewing machine as it endlessly fills and empties, turning reciprocating action into rotary action.

The fountain could provide power for another sculpture that relies instead on a salvaged electric motor to turn an axle on which clutch plates spin and move endlessly to and fro.

“You could stare at the clutch plates for hours and it will never repeat a pattern,” Leblond said.

The idea for a zoetrope came during a trip to Australia and a visit to the Museum of Old and Modern Art in Tasmania, where a version of the 19th century invention was on display, creating the illusion of motion by offering viewers a fleeting glimpse of a spinning image.

For the civic plaza zoetrope, Leblond will create the city skyline as a backdrop for elements that could include float planes and ravens or King Kong scaling the Robertson headframe.

The project will rely on salvaged material from the dump, and will be as simple and vandal-proof as possible: a steel cylinder with a peep hole and a crank handle to spin and animate the figures against the background.

“We’ll hash it out and get a crew and work out a design that everyone can contribute to. A little bit of everybody will be in there,” Leblond said.

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