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Transcript of Episode 14: Happiness and Color

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What’s the last piece of public art you saw? Maybe it was a sculpture in a park, or a mural on the wall of a school building, or maybe it was something totally strange and unexpected that you hesitate to really classify as art. Lots of places incorporate art into their public spaces, whether formally through commissions and public art programs, or unofficially by allowing street art to remain in public places, rather than covering it up or removing it. These artworks can enrich and beautify public spaces, or can be sites of controversy. Sometimes they aren’t even particularly noticeable, integrated so well into their surroundings that you don’t even think about them as you pass through a space. Art in highly utilitarian public spaces, like train stations or airports, can often be like this, but every once in a while an artwork in one of these types of spaces really makes itself felt, and completely transforms the experience of a space. A piece of public art that seems to do this particularly well is in the Champ-de-Mars Metro station in Montréal, Quebec—massive abstract stained glass windows wrapping around the station, enveloping the space within in color and light. Installed in 1968 and created by Quebecoise artist Marcelle Ferron, the windows provide a great opportunity to think about public art in general and some of the key questions surrounding it: for instance, how do we differentiate “public art” from art in general? What makes them relevant to the place they’re in—that is, how do the windows reflect Montreal and Quebec, and how do they fit into the Metro station environment? It was surprisingly tough to access information on Ferron for this episode, even with the ability to read French. But I do want to mention that I am particularly indebted to Gunda Lambton’s chapter on Ferron in the book Stealing the Show: Seven Women Artists in Canadian Public Art, which provides a good discussion of Ferron’s life and career, and Dina Vescio’s paper “Montréal’s Ray of Light: Marcelle Ferron and the Champ-de-Mars Métro Station,” which talks in depth about the Champ-de-Mars commission. Now turn down your Céline Dion, snuggle up with some poutine, and let’s journey to Montréal to talk about some windows in a subway station.

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A description of the stained glass windows in the Champ-de-Mars Metro station in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, by Marcelle Ferron, installed in 1968. This visual description is based on the photo of the Champ-de-Mars stained glass on the Metro station’s Wikipedia page, which only shows two walls of the interior.

The windows stretch from the ceiling of the station to a few feet above the floor, supported on the interior side by a gridlike framework. Clear glass provides a background of sorts to the colorful abstract designs in more translucent glass, which is comprised of smaller panes within large abstract blocks, swirls, and curves. Facing the corner of the building, from in front of a row of turnstiles, one sees a vertical block of red at the far left, with a swirl of rich purple that is lighter on top and darker on the bottom sweeping across it. Across this purple curve are a sweep of silvery-gray glass and of opaque white glass. Extending across the corner in front of the viewer is a vertical bar of orange, with an angular section of dark purple atop it, and atop that, another curvy sweep of silvery-gray. This sweep also overlaps a bar of green and a sweep of blue just to the right of the corner. At the far right, there is another bar of red overlapped by a sweep of purple and finally by a sweep of opaque white. The colors are very vibrant, and contrast markedly with the neutral grays and beiges of the concrete, tile, and metal interior of the station entrance.

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Marcelle Ferron began her professional career as a painter in the 1940s, and was heavily influenced by Surrealism, like many others in the circle of artists she frequented.[1] This circle, which later became known as Les Automatistes or the Automatists, was focused around painter Paul-Émile Borduas, and was highly resistant to the largely conservative Catholic culture of Quebec at the time. Even before Borduas and the Automatists wrote their manifesto, the Refus global, in 1948, Ferron was already struggling with this French Canadian conservatism. She left art school after a year because she felt “cut off from society” in the academic environment, and despite getting married in 1944 and having her first child in 1945, she shied away from the traditional wife-mother role in order to continue her art.[2] Her rise as an artist coincided with the rise of the Automatists—her paintings were accepted to two major shows in 1947, and her first solo show came in 1949, shortly after the publication of the Refus global.[3] Author and historian Gunda Lambton wrote that critiques of Ferron’s first show were influenced by critical response to the Refus global, which Ferron co-signed. One critic wrote, playing on the title of the manifesto, quote: “Do those of the Refus global refuse all technique? They do — and we —the public and myself, refuse our interest.”[4] End quote. This refusal of interest manifested itself in very real ways for the co-signers of the Refus global, as the French Canadian government and the Catholic church both blacklisted them, shocked by the manifesto’s emphasis on “individual freedom, intuition, and the irrational,” and by its references to various revolutions throughout history.[5]

The fire in the Automatists burned out fairly quickly, and the group began to disperse around 1953, a year after Ferron’s last exhibition with them.[6] At the same time, the expectations placed upon Ferron as a wife and mother began to chafe even more, and in 1953 she moved herself and her three children to France in order to further commit herself to her work.[7] After a number of exhibitions, and reconnecting with Borduas, in the decade following, Ferron’s focus began to shift from painting on canvas to murals and more public art, and eventually to stained glass. Her first public commission was back in Quebec in 1963, a mural on the Railway Union building, an accomplishment that she noted “would have been impossible ten years ago.”[8] It was in this same year that Ferron discovered her love for stained glass, stating, quote, “Quite by accident, I entered a little-known Paris gallery with a large exhibition of glass slabs on which artists had worked at the time of their creation. For me, it was a revelation. In a flash I knew I had before me the means of expression I had sought for many years.”[9] End quote. She began to study stained glass alongside French inventor Michel Blum, and by 1965 had created enough experimental glass panels to take 25 of her best back to Montreal, where she resettled permanently.[10]

Quebec had changed while Ferron was gone, undergoing what is now called the Quiet Revolution, a shift in the focus of power in the province from the Catholic Church to the secular provincial government, and the evolution of a more visible Quebecois separatist movement, among other changes. Montreal in particular was becoming a major cultural center, and in 1967 it was the site of Expo 67, a World’s Fair after which the now-defunct Montreal Expos baseball team was named. Ferron’s work appeared at the Expo in the context of a wall by architect Roger D’Astous, which incorporated thirteen of her glass panels.[11] This display of her work in an architectural, public context marked the beginning of a new era in her career—in the years after the expo she exhibited her work at the school of architecture of the University of Toronto twice, and lectured at Laval University’s school of architecture.[12]

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The windows of the Champ-de-Mars Metro station marked her first major public commission in 1968. They cover three walls of the station’s mezzanine level, and are one of her best-known works, considered by some to be her masterpiece.[13] Ferron worked with manufacturer Superseal to create the panels, and Lambton describes the process in detail, quoting Ferron along the way:

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“The antique glass from which the colour panels were cut had been specially produced for Superseal and, according to Ferron, was ‘so sensitive that it seems to move when you walk in front of it.’ For each colour, mixed according to her instructions, she cut out actual-size paper shapes. In the Superseal factory she could be seen in a forest of parallel sheets of glass, seeking to ‘manufacture, grind, proportion her pigments…rejecting all the present day commercial paste of chemical colors, which fade and disintegrate in a few years.”[14]

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Even though she was collaborating with a factory, Ferron was intimately involved with the creation of the windows. The aesthetic control she had over the project was fully supported by Quebec’s Premier, Daniel Johnson, whose government sponsored Ferron’s project and made clear to the Montreal government that, quote, “no one should interfere or pressure [Ferron] to change the design of the piece.”[15] End quote. The original artistic plan of the Montreal Metro was directed by artist Robert LaPalme, who initially wanted to focus on “representational works that recalled Montréal’s history.”[16] The Société des Artistes Professionels du Quebec wrote a letter objecting to LaPalme’s plans for the subway system, which Ferron signed, once again publicly signifying her support for non-representational art as the wave of the future.[17] Ferron would end up being “the only non-figurative artist” to work on the Metro project under LaPalme’s tenure, and, quote, “one of the only artists to contribute an artwork to the Montréal métro without a predetermined theme.”[18] End quote.

Public art seemed to be a perfect fit for Ferron—as multiple scholars have observed, she was very vocal and intentional about involving the public in art and making it accessible to and viewable by the public. One quote of hers expresses this explicitly: quote, “A work of art should be available to everyone, rich or poor, and should surround him everyday when he is on his way to and from work. I don’t paint pictures anymore for the collector to meditate in front of. I want my art to surround the ordinary man with happiness and color.”[19] End quote. Ferron’s dedication to accessible, public art means even more when we consider the medium for which she is most known—stained glass. Most people associate stained glass with churches and cathedrals, in which it serves a primarily religious purpose, heightening the experience of prayer and worship and illustrating stories from scripture. The light streaming through the stained glass in these contexts is often connected to the idea of light as a manifestation of divine power, and the colors used in such stained glass are often selected according to conventions of religious iconography. For instance, in Christian religious art, the Virgin Mary is almost always represented wearing blue. Ferron uses stained glass in a secular context, separating the medium from these religious associations and prompting us to ask new questions about how stained glass works in the context of a secular architectural space.

One of the crucial aspects of the Champ-de-Mars windows in particular is how they mediate light. A good portion of the windows are clear glass, allowing uninterrupted views of the city or the inside of the station, depending on where the viewer stands. During the day natural light streams into the station, illuminating a room that is mostly gray concrete, while at night the artificial lights inside the station stream out through the windows—as Lambton puts it, quote, “in daylight [the windows] show parts of old Montreal’s cityscape; at night, their shapes are clearly defined for those outside…”[20] End quote.

The colors and shapes contained in the windows do not resemble human forms, but the official title of the windows is Les grandes formes qui dansent, or “The large dancing forms,” which adds to the sense of movement and rhythm already present in the bars, curves, and angles. Between the title, the shapes themselves, the visible movement of objects and people both inside and outside the station, and the changing aspects of light throughout the day, the windows are intimately connected with the idea of movement, despite the fact that they themselves are immobile. As quoted earlier, Ferron characterized the colored antique glass itself as “so sensitive that it seems to move when you walk in front of it”—the animation seems to reside in the very material of the glass, not just on either side of it.[21] This sense of movement is extremely appropriate for a Metro station, where, when everything is working as it ought to, there is constant motion, both of subway cars and of passengers.

And yet, you wouldn’t exactly expect stained glass in a Metro station. For one thing, we usually think of glass as fragile, as only suitable for utilitarian purposes in certain forms, such as double-glazing or safety glass. The type of glass that Ferron produced, based on the method pioneered by her mentor Michel Blum, sandwiched antique glass between clear panels for extra durability, transforming a fragile medium into a durable and utilitarian one, making a medium previously fit only for rarified religious contexts into one for use in a great many contexts. After their installation, according to Lambton, the windows survived “two decades in downtown Montreal without vandalism…a tribute to the durability of Ferron’s imported technique.”[22] Colored glass, too, seems unfit for utilitarian purposes at first. It affects visibility, not just of things seen through it, but also of things caught in the colored light it casts. If you’ve ever seen a space lit by a red light, like a darkroom, or a scene in a horror movie, you know how it can distort what you’re able to see. But Ferron’s mixing of colored shapes with mostly clear glass helps maintain a degree of visibility while still allowing a sense of playfulness and joy with the color she does incorporate. The incorporation of opaque white glass is limited to only a couple of sections, again allowing visibility to be maintained while still adding interest and dynamism to the work as a whole.

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Perhaps the best way to understand Marcelle Ferron’s windows in the Champ-de-Mars Metro station is to consider how real people have responded to them. There aren’t a ton of reactions easily available, but a quote from Ferron’s book L’esquisse d’une mémoire, or “The Sketch of a Memory,” gives a good sense of how some ordinary commuters see the windows:

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“One day a woman stopped me in the street to talk to me about Champ-de-Mars metro station. ‘Whether it’s sunny, rainy, or snowing, I see your stained-glass windows at Champ-de-Mars. Those big dancing shapes always warm my heart.’ That woman was neither a collector nor an art critic, but she understood the meaning I meant to give that work.”[23]

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This highlights an important aspect of public art that can be easily overlooked because it’s so obvious: its relationship to the public. Not just in conceptual or cultural terms, but in everyday terms. The woman who stopped Ferron in the street sees her windows every day, in every weather condition, in every type of light—she experiences them in ways that Ferron herself may have never experienced them, that the tourist or the occasional passer-by will never experience them. Public art is not shaped by the consistency of gallery conditions. It exists more fully in the capital-R Real world than other types of art that are not as public. Some people notice it, like the woman who stopped Ferron in the street, or the Foursquare user from 2011 who recommended that others “take the time to admire the large window that decorates the station.”[24] Others may not, such as users on Google Maps who comment extensively on the station’s cleanliness and accessibility, but not its windows, or the other Foursquare user who called the whole station “nasty looking” (perhaps this person did notice the windows and just didn’t particularly like them).[25] There may be public artworks where you live that you never even think about; sculptures or murals or installations that nobody ever even talks about until, perhaps, they’re about to be torn down or moved. We’ve seen this a lot in recent years in the United States with public monuments to the Confederacy. There may be public artworks where you live that you particularly cherish, or which have become sites for meme-making, like the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow that now would seem incomplete without the plastic traffic cone someone placed on its head. But these are stand-alone works, not works integrated into the fabric of a building like Ferron’s windows. Murals and windows function in different ways than stand-alone statues, and are in many ways much more changeable, either due to vandalism or repainting or simply the dirt and grime that visibly accumulates on them over time in an urban environment.

Public art is also affected by changes in the city around it—for example, the monument to the Great Fire of 1666 in London was once the highest viewpoint in London, but today it’s overshadowed by skyscrapers, including The Shard, which currently holds the title of highest viewpoint in London. This has happened to the Champ-de-Mars metro station, too—the space surrounding the station is being redesigned as a public square called the Place des Montréalaises, honoring 21 notable women from Montréal history. Currently, the station is surrounded by grassy parkland and a painted asphalt area with umbrellas and beds of flowers. But as of late 2018, plans were unveiled to replace that with “a forest, a meadow, and an array of artwork,” according to Global News.[26] The changes are part of a winning proposal by artist Angela Silver and design firms Lemay and SNC-Lavalin, and are supposed to be completed by 2022. That the Place des Montréalaises aims to commemorate the role of women in shaping the city makes it a particularly apt companion to Ferron’s windows in the Metro station, as her public commissions were an important part of shaping the modern landscape of Montreal and of Quebec more generally. Hopefully the Place des Montréalaises provokes new considerations and approaches to Ferron’s windows, and connects them to other changes and events centered at the Champ-de-Mars station. These changes include the three elevators the station inaugurated in 2014, making the station fully accessible to wheelchairs.[27] Potentially, anyway. I’m not sure about the Montreal metro, but many subway systems’ elevators are notorious for breaking down and thus denying access to those who need them. The fact that the Champ-de-Mars station, and the metro system in general, was in large part built several decades ago is also becoming apparent, as evidenced by an incident that occurred in January 2019. A man pepper-sprayed another man during a fight at the Champ-de-Mars station, and concern over the dispersal of the fumes through the Champ-de-Mars station as well as another nearby transfer point prompted the shutdown of three out of four of the city’s metro lines.[28] This prompted a call by Mayor Valérie Plante for a proposed fifth line, which officials hope will alleviate pressure on a system which it is estimated a quarter of a million people use every morning.[29] One wonders how a new line would change perceptions of the Champ-de-Mars station and its windows—how many fewer people would go through that station, were another line to be built? How many people would take the time to look up at the windows, were they not pressing through crowds to reach their platform?

Whatever the changes that occur in and around the Champ-de-Mars Métro station, Ferron’s windows fulfill a key function of public art: they are accessible. It’s clear that Ferron was dedicated to accessible art. To revisit a quote of hers from earlier: quote, “A work of art should be available to everyone, rich or poor, and should surround him everyday when he is on his way to and from work…I want my art to surround the ordinary man with happiness and color.”[30] End quote. And not just men going to work can appreciate these windows—so can schoolchildren, parents, tourists, even people who don’t use the subway who can appreciate their colors and forms from outside the building. The windows are all the more remarkable as an abstract work, abstract art being arguably one of the least accessible genres of art, and the genre that most reliably prompts viewers to say “my kid can do that!” By taking abstract art out of the gallery, away from paint and canvases, and into the subway station, into the world of glass, Ferron’s windows at the Champ-de-Mars Métro station reframe how abstract art can function and how relevant it can be to the lives of ordinary people.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All! You can find a transcript of this podcast, with links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. For updates about episodes and other fun artsy chatter, check out our Twitter, @arthistory4all, with the number 4. Subscribe to us on your pod catcher of choice—including Spotify—and don’t forget to drop a rating and review, and tell your friends about us, too! If you really, REALLY like the podcast, please feel free to leave a tip on Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall.

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Keep a look out for new episodes releasing the last Monday of every month.  Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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Additional Music Credits:

“Let That Sink In” by Lee Rosevere (via freemusicarchive.org). Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

“You’re Enough (version a)” by Lee Rosevere (via freemusicarchive.org). Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

[1] Gunda Lambton, “Chapter One: Marcelle Ferron,” in Stealing the Show: Seven Women Artists in Canadian Public Art (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 17.

[2] Lambton, Stealing the Show, 17-18.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lambton, Stealing the Show, 19.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 19-20.

[8] Ibid., 23-24.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 24. An unofficial website “for fans of Montreal’s Metro system” attributes her departure from France to exile due to her association with an anti-Franco activist. http://www.metrodemontreal.com/art/ferron/

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 24-25.

[13] Ann Davis, “Marcelle Ferron,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, last modified 4 March 2015). https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/marcelle-ferron.

[14] Lambton, Stealing the Show, 25.

[15] Dina Vescio, “Montréal’s Ray of Light: Marcelle Ferron and the Champ-de-Mars Métro Station.” Presented at the symposium Metro Borduas: The Underground Landscape of Abstract Art in Montréal, Concordia University, Montréal, 26 November 2006. Archived at http://www.metroborduas.concordia.ca/html/papersok/dina.htm.

[16] Vescio.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ferron, 1967, quoted in Vescio.

[20] Lambton, Stealing the Show, 25.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Marchelle Ferron and Michel Brûlé, L’esquisse d’une mémoire, (Montréal: Les Intouchables, 1996), 217-222. Via Wikiquote.org. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marcelle_Ferron

[24] Lyne Mongrain, comment on “STM Station du Champ-de-Mars,” Foursquare. 2 August 2011. https://foursquare.com/v/stm-station-du-champdemars/4af48739f964a52087f321e3

[25] plucker, comment on “STM Station du Champ-de-Mars,” Foursquare. 19 May 2012. https://foursquare.com/v/stm-station-du-champdemars/4af48739f964a52087f321e3

[26] Elysia Bryan-Baynes, Montreal unveils plans for urban park over Ville-Marie tunnel,” Global News, 6 September 2018. https://globalnews.ca/news/4432158/montreal-unveils-plans-urban-park-ville-marie-tunnel/

[27] “The Champ-de-Mars metro is now fully accessible to wheelchairs,” Montreal Gazette, 9 December 2014. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/champ-de-mars-metro-station-now-accessible-to-wheelchairs

[28] “Emergency métro shutdown shows need for Pink Line, says Plante,” Montreal Gazette, 9 January 2019. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/transit-delays-follow-pepper-spray-incident-at-champs-de-mars-metro-station

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ferron, 1967, quoted in Vescio.

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