The Art of Calgary's Manholes

Covering 12,000 km worth of underground pipes, Calgary's manhole covers are some of the most ubiquitous artworks in the city.



Photo courtesy The City of Calgary.

The mold for the Chinook manhole cover, designed in 2002 by artist Garry Williams.

 

It seems that Calgary’s next big art opportunity could be right under your foot.

With the recent bout of winter rain and sleet, it seems an appropriate time to be celebrating the city’s manhole covers, those stout, metal biscuits that keep our streets from flooding and pedestrians from falling into giant holes in the ground. The City of Calgary certainly wants you to pay attention, and is looking for people to come up with two new, eye-catching designs for the covers.

 

A bit of history

 

If you’re not the kind to keep an eye on your feet, you may not have noticed that there are actually multiple designs for the covers, ranging from the city skyline to the personification of a Chinook blowing its warm wind. This last design, simply titled “Chinook,” was created in 2002 by local artist Garry Williams as part of the City’s policy on integrating art into its infrastructure. You might know from some of his other work for the city, like the "Rabbit Rise" statues in Edgemont Park and "Aesop’s Fables" on 4th St. S.W.

Incidentally, the Calgary Stampede also has its own manhole covers spread out across the Stampede Grounds. The 50 covers were first installed in 2006 and were created by Carson McCulloch and Associates Ltd. using standard Stampede icons.

 

The call for new covers

 

Due to the immense amount of wear and tear these disks suffer, the average life expectancy for a manhole cover is about 10 years, with the city replacing around 2,000 covers ever year. It’s this turnover rate that has prompted the city to launch a call for artists of all backgrounds to create two designs to be Calgary’s next manhole covers.

The call for artists asks that interested parties submit a portfolio for consideration, as the actual design process will require the chosen artists to both perform research and community engagement before they take on the challenge of designing the biscuits.

“The notion here is that we're assigning each artist to one of the systems, either water or waste and storm water, to give the artist a chance to be embedded for a bit doing some research on that whole process,” says Sarah Iley, manager of culture for the City of Calgary. “[Their work] will help us to understand a little better or helping us related to the fact of what's underneath [our feet].”

Iley says this time around, the call was specifically for artists rather than designs, because the City is hoping to attract talent from a variety of different practices, rather than someone versed in creating public art. “The nice thing is they're just drawing a design that someone else is going to fabricate, so obviously you want someone who has a good understanding of how materials work,” says Iley. “Other than that, it's much wider open than a lot of other [public art works].”

Submission deadline is January 8. For more information or to apply, visit calgary.ca

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