READING MONTREAL, Dec 2005
Garden Stories: Creak and Spin
By Gina Badger
Walking is a kind of reading Braille. We learn the city by the soles of our feet. If you are lucky, you will have discovered the sculpture park in the middle of night, towards the end of summer, when the air is wistful and calm. It is one of those secret spaces, so exposed and strangely placed that it becomes invisible. If you move through the city with only a destination in mind, it’s possible that you might never find it. But if you read with your soles, sometime you’ll end up here, and I wonder what stories you’ll find?
The garden is tacked onto the northern boundary of the Mile-End, sandwiched between long industrial buildings in red brick and flanked by whizzing roadways and chugging trains. Aside from a couple of large poplars that have swallowed part of the chain link fence separating the park and the tracks, there is little by way of large plants or interesting topography. The space is exposed and a bit hostile, despite being filled with a dozen or so whimsical, beautiful sculptures. The pieces are large in scale, mostly twelve or so feet high, and made of reclaimed materials, wood and metal. Some are painted a uniform, brilliant color, but mostly the original textures and colors are retained, including the marks of wear and age. In combination with the overgrown summer foliage or the snow and gray-yellow December grass, these weather-worn sculptures give the impression of an abandoned carnival. A creaking, twirling, possessed space.
These days there are places to sit down in the garden: a wooden bench under one of the large poplars and another along the eastern side, just in front of the protruding cement of the underpass, and a snaking Gaudi-esque rock collage of a bench at the western boundary. But even if you come on a pleasant summer evening, chances are there won’t be anyone sitting about. Mostly, you’ll be alone. Glen LeMesurier, the sculptor responsible for the garden, wishes otherwise. He tells me that he began building the garden three years ago, inspired by the death of a dear aunt, whose folk-art garden he had spent lot of time in as a kid. Perhaps the lingering feeling of strange presences in the garden comes from this early possession of LeMesurier’s, the aunt who accompanied him through the building of its first sculptures. He began the project one October night three years ago, clandestinely digging holes and planting his big masses of metal and wood. At first no one noticed, so he kept building and planting, pushed on, as he says, by the spirit of his old aunt. Eventually, the city came ’round to ask what he was up to, by which time he was already pretty comfortable and feeling strongly about the place. He argued that the land was no use to them anyway, having been an abandoned car lot for many years. The land was toxic, and they would have to dig four feet out of the whole lot in order to build anything. “If you let me stay,” he said, “I can detoxify the land with plants.” And so a deal was struck. In order to secure the space in any permanent kind of way, LeMesurier realized that the space had to be useful, to become something of an active public park, frequented by families and old ladies as well as melancholic hipsters who like things that creak and spin.
The garden has more uses than you might think. “If you spend enough time here,” explains LeMesurier, “you’ll learn to read the sculptures like a weather station. I can tell what kind of clothes I’ll need for the day just by looking at which ones are spinning. That gold and red one, it only spins with a southerly wind, so if it’s going, I know it’ll be warm all day. But the big whirly-gig only spins if there’s going to be a storm.” On another day, when we talked mostly about the plants in the lot, he led me over to a couple of blocks of cement set up as a seating area, and pointed to a scraggly plant growing out of the ground. “I just transplanted this mint yesterday, and I think it’s going to take,” he said excitedly, “that way, next summer, when you come here with your lover, you can sit together and smell the mint.” LeMesurier has been devotedly transplanting various local plants from the area into his garden. Eventually, the plants will spread all the way from the road, where they started coming up first when he began the project, to the railroad end of the park, which is still a bit sandy. “As more and more plant diversity is introduced, insects are starting to come back. There were even bees pollinating these flowers this summer,” he relates, “I was so excited to see them.” Someday, the plants and the bees will have chased the poison out of the ground.
As his years with the garden go by, LeMesurier says, he feels the presence of his aunt less and less. It has become less a memorial than a weather station, a playground, a place to write poetry, and watch sculptures grow old. But no matter what he says, the garden remains a persistently possessed, slowly spinning place in which you cannot escape your own melancholia. This is a precious experience. If you choose to sit there, you will be swept over by a wind that blows past you without even noticing, and all kinds of vehicles whose passengers would never stop here. The open, exposed character of this lot will stop it from ever becoming a thriving public park, overrun by screaming kids. You can’t play tag beside a freeway. So even as the plants take over and the space becomes greener and greener, and perhaps you are inspired to lead your new lover to a certain fragrant mint patch, this garden will never shake its sweetly sinister character.
It is through its creaking and spinning that it relates to you its stories: foggy memories of rusting cars and whispering aunts, grain freight shipped in from the prairies and squashed pennies on the steel tracks.
Wherever you are, it is worth the walk.