Visual Arts prof creates public art reflecting themes of COVID-19 pandemic

FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2022 | by 

One of Canada’s biggest software companies recently selected a Brock University professor and artist to create a public art piece reflecting on themes of ‘loss’ during the pandemic.

Donna Szoke, Associate Professor of Studio Art at Brock’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (MIWSFPA) was chosen by OpenText Corporation to create new artwork dedicated to their employees impacted by the pandemic and pay tribute to the lives lost to COVID-19.

The Waterloo-based company wanted to commission and support a Canadian artist, and put out a national call for the project in 2021. Szoke was immediately drawn to the unconventional call for public art creation within a corporate context.

Through a creative and personal exploration of themes related to the pandemic and their impact on mental health, Szoke created her proposal and drawings for The Breathing Tree. Inspired by the concept of ‘box breathing,’ used to calm anxiety, and Szoke’s desire to be in nature, the idea for a back-lit sculpture in the form of a tree came to life.

The tree sculpture is made of stainless steel that was digitally cut and mounted to the wall in the OpenText lobby that employees pass by every day. The artwork, which appears as a tree and its reflection, invites viewers into a meditative moment while taking in the piece.

With a resemblance to lungs, the sculpture also connects with the respiratory nature of COVID-19. Lit from the rear, the piece glows with soft purple and blue lights that dim and brighten in six-second intervals. The timed coloured lights subtly invite viewers to breathe along with the tree.

“As a testament to the lives lost from COVID-19, it gives us an introspective moment with nature, grounding us in our own breathing and our own lived moment where life, loss, love, grief and resilience are inextricably bound,” Szoke said in her artist statement.

Szoke worked with local fabricator Ramm Design to cut the steel for the sculpture, and with Hamilton-based electrical engineer and artist Jim Ruxton to create the timed electronics lighting the work in a very collaborative process. A holder of a technical diploma in Foundry, Szoke was familiar with the steel material, although the cutting techniques used were new to her.

Szoke’s artworks become teaching tools for her Studio Art courses. In the Visual Arts course VISA 3Q91 — Research Seminar, Szoke models the process of creating public artwork from design inspiration through to fabrication, including the techniques and tools she employs in the process.

The virtual opening for The Breathing Tree was held in December, with 10,000 OpenText employees in attendance. The permanent installation includes a plaque sharing details of the piece.

Szoke has also recently received a Canada Games grant as well as an Ontario Arts Council grant for new work, both coming up in 2022-23.