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'A new wave of thinking about our ravines': The Don River Valley gets its own artistic curator

The first exhibit, Monsters for Beauty, Permanence and Individuality by Cree artist Duane Linklater, launched earlier this month, plopping 14 concrete gargoyles in the valley.

Curator Kari Cwynar poses with one of the sculptures by artist Duane Linklater that make up an exhibit on display along the Don River.

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Lance McMillan / For Metro

Curator Kari Cwynar poses with one of the sculptures by artist Duane Linklater that make up an exhibit on display along the Don River.

Don’t call it a sculpture garden. Or an outdoor gallery. And you probably won’t see army generals on horseback captured in bronze.

The artworks Kari Cwynar is installing in the Don Valley are in and of their surroundings.

A gargoyle lounging in the grass by the Don River may seem out of place, but to Cwynar it's back where it belongs, telling the story of the valley.

"The Don Valley is almost a literal metaphor for how the city of Toronto was built," she said.

Now, as a curator for a portion of the park, Cwynar is animating those metaphors through art.

Hired by Evergreen, an environmental charity, and the City of Toronto, Cwynar is leading a unique program to reanimate the approximately 490 acres of parkland that stretches from the Brick Works site, near Bayview and Pottery Road, to the mouth of the Don River at Lake Ontario.

Though this is the first program of its kind, as far as Evergreen is aware, CEO Geoff Cape says art in a park isn't ground-breaking unto itself. Most parks incorporate art, he said, be it landscaping or a fountain or "a statue of some military guy sitting on a horse."

But the plan for this park was to break from that routine and push big ideas, he said.

The big idea here: shine a light on the Don Valley and the city’s entire ravine system. A dedicated curator is part of a three-pronged approach: improving access through better trails and wayfinding, improving the ecology and adding art — the right art.

"We wanted to focus on quality. We wanted to focus on artwork that was really well organized in relation to that local context," Cape said.

Cape calls the ravines the "defining landscape of our city," noting they comprise about one-sixth of the city's land. But he admits the ravines are “a bit amorphic,” not a symbol that jumps to mind when conjuring up Toronto.

"We need to put a little more energy into understanding their importance and beginning to celebrate them more substantially,” he said, adding that energy includes city hall upping funding.

"That's what great art does: it provokes curiosity … art makes you think. And these pieces are part of a new wave of thinking about our ravines," he said.

The first exhibit, Monsters for Beauty, Permanence and Individuality by Cree artist Duane Linklater, launched earlier this month, plopping 14 concrete gargoyles in the valley, modelled after those that dot the city's skyline. The materials for the original gargoyles were extracted from the river valley around the turn of the century, creating a full-circle story of the valley's history.

"The Don Valley has existed for thousands of years,” Cwynar said. “It is a scrappy, neglected valley, but people still use and love it.”

She sought artists with something to say about the setting. To coax out that theme, the place was part of the process from the beginning. After selecting an artist, Cwynar walked the valley with them, talking about what spoke to them. Together they developed the projects.

“It has been abused by hydro lines and a highway and a rail corridor all jammed within what was once a flourishing river valley," she said, adding that of course before all that it was an important site for the area’s Indigenous Peoples.

And though connecting Torontonians to the Don Valley may require more than putting a gargoyle on it, they don’t hurt.

"The gargoyles are very photogenic," Cape said. "They make great Facebook or Instagram shots ... The buzz that's built around art is always exciting."

However, Cwynar rejects the idea that the art is a branding tool for the park. She sees the relationship in reverse.

"The natural environment is the thing,” she said. The art doesn't add anything. “It’s about enhancing it.”

The pieces rolling out over the next three years of the program will include murals, performances and workshops. Cwynar wanted to remove the label of public art and the connotations that brings and run a more artist-first program.

Many works across the city now are funded by money siphoned from developers' coffers under Section 37 regulations, making the art seem like a requirement or an afterthought, she said.

"To me it is different from the way public art is being done in Toronto, or for the most part in Canada.”

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