Sentinels of Time: The Gallery’s Outdoor Sculptures

At the peak of Nepean Point in Ottawa, located between the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) and the Alexandra Bridge, Hamilton MacCarthy’s statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1915) holds an upside-down astrolabe. This ancient navigational instrument, made of a disc and a pivoting pointer, measures latitudes using the night sky. Just as he mapped the stars, visitors standing at Champlain’s unique vantage point — using some imagination — can map the carefully arranged constellation of shining sculptures guarding the Gallery’s glass-and-granite structure.

Made of bronze, sheet metal, carved stone, stainless steel, and even marble, the NGC’s collection of outdoor sculptures are on display to the general public. Like sentinels of time, these works by outstanding Canadian and international artists — including James Hart, Ugo Rondinone, Michel de Broin, Louise Bourgeois, and Roxy Paine —showcase multidimensionality.

Some of these monumental sculptures have already become icons of Canada’s capital city. The best example is Louise Bourgeois’ giant 9.25-metre-tall spider Maman (1999) with its 26 white marble eggs suspended high above the ground. Each day, visitors beat a path to the sculpture on the Gallery’s plaza, posing beside or beneath it, snapping pictures that have made the creature as famous as the Gallery itself.

Maman has indeed become a beloved part of the fabric of the city of Ottawa,” said Jonathan Shaughnessy, the National Gallery’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It even has its own marker on Google Maps now — The Maman Statue — which, by the way, the NGC had no hand in getting.”

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003 bronze, stainless steel, and marble, 927 x 891 x 1024 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Bourgeois is one of the most important French-American artists of the twentieth century. Her work draws links between her past, represented by her tapestry-weaver mother, and the future, personified in the arachnids she creates. “My mother,” Bourgeois has said, “was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Shaughnessy agrees. He sees Maman (French for “mother”) as protective, nurturing, and welcoming of all those who pass under, around or beside it. “It is a perfect fit for the Gallery entrance,” he says, “and could not suit it better in terms of scale and placement.”

Designed by Montreal architect Moshe Safdie to look outwards, the Gallery itself offers visitors a unique invitation to explore not only the largest Canadian art collection in the world, but also its grounds as public art has the potential to engage and transform spaces. Free and open to everyone, it has the ability to create attachment to the community. It also serves as a perfect excuse to talk about art in the course of a leisurely stroll along the Gallery’s many leafy paths.

“It's always interesting to point out to people that, apart from the sculptures exhibited outside,” says Shaughnessy, “the gardens and every aspect of the building’s grounds are specific projects by one of Canada's most renowned landscape architects, Cornelia Oberlander.” Inspired by the Gallery and the nature of its art collection, such as paintings by the Group of Seven, Oberlander’s gardens — The Ascent to Nepean Point, The Winter, The Sunken and The Taiga (all 1988) — are welcoming sites for visitors to explore.

Shaughnessy points out that the NGC has not taken the route of a traditional sculpture garden with a specific plot of land filled with specific works of art. “It has instead been the reverse,” he says, “finding works that are exceptional and destined for the outdoors, then assessing whether or not there is a suitable spot for them at the Gallery.”

Here, they find a home.

Such is the case for Eagle Clan Chief James Hart’s The Three Watchmen (2010), a work inspired by British Columbia’s Indigenous heritage. Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has said that the installation pays tribute to Canada’s Indigenous peoples and awakens “a new appreciation for the culture and stories of the Haida Nation.” Standing at more than four metres tall and cast in a special bronze designed to withstand Ottawa winters, the three figures are arranged back-to-back on a traffic island at the intersection of St. Patrick Street and Sussex Drive. This position gives them a full 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding area. Hart’s work employs ancient traditions and practices, while carrying its message of protection into the future.

James Hart, The Three Watchmen, 2003, cast 2010, bronze, 15 x 5 x 5 ft. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, Vancouver, 2011. Photo NGC © James Hart


Nearby, overlooking the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill and the Canadian Museum of History, Roxy Paine’s One Hundred Foot Line (2010) stands out for its height. Undoubtedly the tallest work in the national collection, One Hundred Foot Line references Canada’s capital and its closeness to nature. It is also the artist’s most ambitious sculpture to date. Made of rolled sheet metal and stainless steel, this 30.5-metre-tall meandering leafless, branchless and shimmering tree trunk, has been a permanent part of the outdoor public sculpture collection since 2011.

Visitors are also encouraged to hunt petroglyphs to find Nicholas Galanin’s Nature Will Reclaim You (2013) and to look for Majestic (2011) by Canadian artist Michel de Broin. De Broin’s array of revitalized New Orleans streetlamps, uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, light up the area as night falls. Art lovers may also encounter the arabesques sandblasted onto the enormous granite stones of Bill Vazan’s Black Nest (1989–1991) and Water Planet (2001). Joe Fafard’s original Running Horses (2007) is coming soon as the Gallery’s newest permanent addition to the Gallery’s outdoor works. Refurbished to withstand Ottawa winters, Running Horses will remain outside year round. Visitors wishing to stay warm, however, can still appreciate Running Horses from inside the Gallery — whereas once it was painted only to be best viewed from the street, the sculpture is now painted on both sides for good window viewing.

Michel de Broin, Majestic, 2011, lamp posts, steel, glass, electricity, Gift of Donald and Beth Sobey, Nova Scotia, 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC © Michel de Broin


Among its principal missions, the Gallery aims to increase access to outstanding works of art for all Canadians. To do that, it not only makes these sculptures available to all who pass by, but also maintains the largest touring program of art exhibitions in the world.

People of all ages are welcome to tour the Gallery’s premises as though navigating a star map with an astrolabe. Formed as they are of imaginary patterns dreamt up by people, constellations offer a similar freedom to wander and make connections. This particular constellation of outdoor public sculptures is unique. It promotes a sense of community, it records and celebrates important traditions, and it encourages public discourse.

And you never know — it may even inspire a selfie or two.

The National Gallery of Canada is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday to 8 p.m. For more information, see the Gallery’s online Hours and Admissions page. The outdoor sculptures are always open to the public, and are wheelchair-accessible. A mobile tour of the sculptures can be accessed through the following link:


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