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Why 'Pipe Man,' a Tom Thomson tribute, has small-town Ontario up in arms

The 5.5-metre-tall Pipe Man sits in the Muskoka River in Huntsville, Ont. A survey found just 9 per cent of respondents like the artwork, while 60 per cent give it thumbs down, many condemning it as an eyesore and free advertising for the local company that donated it.

Dawn Huddlestone/Huntsville Doppler

Ottawa has Voice of Fire.

Little Huntsville – a picturesque tourist town in the heart of Ontario's cottage country – has Pipe Man.

Both works of art are 5.5 metres tall, both have but two colours – red and blue for Voice of Fire, black and white for Pipe Man – and both opened to initial public outrage.

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One, the Barnett Newman painting that the Canadian government purchased to wide outcry in 1990 for $1.76-million, hangs in the National Gallery, overlooking the Ottawa River. The other just hangs around the town docks, bobbing in the Muskoka River.

Pipe Man, as it is known locally, is an homage to Tom Thomson, the legendary Canadian artist who vanished 100 years ago last Saturday and eight days later was found floating in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake, a deep bruise on his left temple and fishing line wrapped more than a dozen times around one ankle. The mystery, blessed with precious few facts, several "alternative facts" and endless speculation, will never be solved. Nor does anyone today wish it to be, as the mystery has become equal to the art in the enduring legacy of Thomson.

There is no such mystery behind Pipe Man. It was a gift to the town from Pipefusion, a local success story that builds and sells floating docks and this year celebrates its 35th anniversary as one of the small town's most important employers. The offer of a gift was made by Pipefusion owner Jan Nyquist and town officials suggested some public art that would require little to no cost maintenance. As the town had honoured Thomson with a statue in front of the town hall and several murals on buildings, it was suggested something special for the 100th anniversary of his passing might be appropriate.

An accomplished local artist, Beverley Hawksley, was commissioned and the town ensured that every possible consideration was given – including gaining permission from Transport Canada to anchor the floating industrial art work along a navigable waterway. The floating statue would even be lighted for night safety.

Through many months of planning, including open council sessions and media stories on the project, there was some debate, but mostly about its prominent location. It would be anchored just off the swing bridge in a widening of the river that is surrounded by retail outlets and restaurants.

The local Rotary Club was onside. Nearby businesses approved. One citizen wrote council saying the sculpture "is a stunning piece of dare to be different art work and we are fortunate to have the artist and the sponsor both living in our town." "Public art is not meant to be liked or disliked," wrote another. "It is meant to be discussed and cause thought. Tom Thomson would have known this since his art, too, was deemed controversial in some circles."

The new work was "installed" late last year … and the proverbial immediately hit the fan.

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"It's strange how passionate many people are in their dislike of Pipe Man," says Elizabeth Rice, former publisher of the Huntsville Forester and currently publisher of Huntsville Doppler, a popular online publication. "We can spend hours working on really important stories about local health care, tax increases, sewer capacity, and people are like, 'Yeah whatever – but that Pipe Man has to go.'"

Doppler ran an online survey that found only 9 per cent like Pipe Man and wished him left alone, while 31 per cent felt the art was fine but the location wrong – and 60 per cent checked off "Not my cup of tea."

Comments ran to 55 pages in the survey, with many calling it "an eyesore," some saying it was "dangerous" and many condemning it as "advertising" for Pipefusion. "SELF SERVING ABOMINATION" wrote one anonymous critic. Many have pointed out its resemblance to an erect penis.

A small portion of those who commented were favourable, especially kind to Ms. Hawksley's evocative etching of Thomson. "If we only had art that the 'masses' love," wrote one, "then we would be like every other town."

Huntsville, it should be noted, is most decidedly not "like every other town." They do things differently here and take great pride in it. Back in the late 1800s, when the town's "founding father," Captain George Hunt, staked out lots on the prime land around Fairy and Vernon lakes, he insisted on a clause in each deed that would ban alcohol from the premises for 20 years and 10 months after the death of Queen Victoria's last grandchild. The people responded by building on the surrounding hills and drinking whatever they wished.

It is a town that sometimes feels as if it poured from the pen of Stephen Leacock.

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Seven years ago, during the G8 Summit, the town revelled in the national media's outrage over the $50-million fund that local MP Tony Clement snagged in order to pave roads, plant flowers and build state-of-the-art public toilets. When the actual summit was held, the army was on hand to deal with protesters, the most memorable of whom was a young boy holding up a sign requesting more cookies.

Not even Leacock could make up some of this stuff.

"It's kind of funny," says Mayor Scott Aitchison of Pipe Man. "This is what art is supposed to be. It's supposed to provoke a response."

Jonathan Shaughnessy agrees. The associate curator of contemporary art at Canada's National Gallery, Mr. Shaughnessy has seen Voice of Fire shift from being a national outrage to "one of the masterpieces that people will come to Ottawa to see."

Public art, he says, can be "a prickly realm." On any arts jury selecting an item for public display, there will invariably be the "safe" way to go, as well as the "risky." Safe isn't always the smartest.

"Sometimes the most obvious, you get it right away and that's great," Mr. Shaughnessy says. "But then it languishes in a park for 20 or 30 years and nobody pays any attention to it. What's there to pique your interest?

"This is what Voice of Fire does. If there's something there that gives you a sort of confusion, it's like you have to go back to it. It's the question of what matters over time. Is it the work that at first might be a head-scratcher in some ways? Not to give offence, but just sort of 'Oh, what's up with that?' Art is not the same as every other item out there in consumer culture. Sometimes it's meant to lob a bit of a … whatever into the conversation.

"You can avoid going to a museum if you don't want to see what's in there," Mr. Shaughnessy says, "but when you start putting things outside, then you're saying 'You have to deal with this object in some way. We hope you'll enjoy it, but not everyone does.'"

"I like Pipe Man because it's doing what art should do," says Grant Nickalls, a local broadcaster and actor who will present a one-act play, When Winnie Knew, at the Algonquin Theatre in town. "Winnie" is Winnifred Trainor, the Huntsville girlfriend left behind when Thomson died. Local legend has the painter booking a honeymoon cabin at Billie Bear Lodge just before he disappeared.

"Sometimes, I feel a little bit like I'm living in Negativeville, not Huntsville," Mr. Nickalls says in a video posted on YouTube. For the anonymous critics of the art, he has nothing but condemnation. Ms. Hawksley, he says, is "an incredible artist" who is duly celebrated for her talent. Nyquist, he says, has a long history of giving generously to town causes.

As for those who criticize it as nothing but advertising for Pipefusion, Mr. Nickalls suggests they look again at the town's popular Christmastime Parade: "Other than Santa Claus himself, is that not just a bunch of business cards rolling down Main Street?"

"We don't even have our name on it" says Mr. Nyquist, the Pipefusion owner and donor. Indeed, a prerequisite of council was that there be no advertising attached. The only mention of the donor is found in a discreet sign put up on shore by the town.

All the same, one anonymous critic called it "shameless advertising," proving that Leacock had it pretty much right when he wrote in The Garden of Folly that, "A half truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries further."

Mr. Nyquist understands that there is a certain element of surprise to encountering a work of art in the middle of a river. "I have no issue with someone not liking it," he says. "The issue is about not insulting someone like Beverley. If you call it a 'turd,' fine – but if you attack Beverley, that's bullying."

As for his own feelings, he says: "Once in a while you feel a little beat up, but I'm way past that."

"The donation was handled with the best of intentions," says Teri Souter, the town's manager of arts, culture and heritage. "The artist was assigned and paid to design it. The council approved it and Transport Canada okayed it. It's unfortunate that the public was not engaged throughout, but it was discussed at council and reported in the media."

The artist, Ms. Hawksley, says that Mr. Nyquist should be thanked for his generosity. "How many companies want to celebrate their anniversary by giving art to the public?" she asks. "What a wonderful gesture."

The four-sided black pipe column has Ms. Hawksley's image of Tom Thomson on one side and 35 ripples on another, the sole tip to the company's anniversary. In retrospect, Mr. Nyquist says, they might better have put art on all four sides, as many are confused when they first see it and it has yet to spin around to show the image.

"If I get asked one more time what it is," says a worker in a nearby outfitting store, "I'm going to cry."

The town has opened up an online survey to gauge public response on what, if anything, to do about the controversy. The survey will run until Aug. 5, Thomson's birthday. One possible result will be to move it, at considerable cost, to a less prominent location.

Some, however, are coming around to liking it right where it is. "The more I look at Pipe Man in person and in photos," says Ms. Rice, the publisher, "The more I grow to like him."

Mr. Aitchison would agree. "I like it," the mayor says, "especially at night when there's a little haze over the water and you can see it glowing."

"In the evening it looks like a great big glowing penis ready to take on the world," adds Mr. Nickalls. "Now how does that not make you proud to be living in this town? How does that not make you smile?

"Long live the Pipe Man!"

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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