by Ian Shantz | August 2023
The Wise Old Oak is tucked away in a peaceful, somewhat solitary corner of Waterloo Region.
You’ll find artist Dustin Quill’s tree sculpture on the Health Valley Trail, which runs adjacent to the Conestogo River between Waterloo and St. Jacobs.
Or maybe you’ll miss it, as I did during one of my treks along the trail. (Directions? Who needs ’em!)
It’s that elusiveness that is part of the magic when it comes to one of the region’s more off the beaten path pieces of public art.
Nonetheless, the Wise Old Oak should be cherished by all fortunate enough to view it. When and if you do find the carving, you’ll likely stand in awe for a few minutes and probably even take a moment to reflect. If you have social media, you’ll almost certainly head straight to the ‘gram to capture the moment. Quill would love that. The St. Jacobs artist installed a small wooden sign at the site encouraging visitors who check out his fascinating art – a face carved into a dead tree – to use the hashtag #WiseOldOak on Instagram.
The easiest and quickest way to access the tree art is to start at the trail’s Waterloo entrance at 3075 University Ave., walk about one kilometre as the crow flies, and stay to your right at any forks along the way. Proper footwear and general awareness is key as the path is particularly narrow and uneven at the Waterloo portion of the route.
The Wise Old Oak is a personal favourite among an abundance of world-class public art that breathes life and energy into Waterloo Region with nods to the past, present, and future. And often with brilliant blasts of colour.
Here are seven other places to find Instagrammable art in the region:
TRACK IT ON THE ION
Art doesn’t get more accessible than via the ION light rail where 10 unique works are displayed at stops along the line.
See the mall, then see them all, starting with Catherine Paleczny’s ‘Continuum’ at the Conestoga Mall station and concluding with Stephen’s Cruise’s ‘shaping Residency’ at the Fairview Mall stop (look for the two giant bird sculptures). Venture to the end of the line by bus where the Cambridge Centre terminal houses Ken Hall’s stimulating ‘Pin art.’
ION riders are encouraged to use the ION public art passport and share photos using the #IONpublicart hashtag.
I spent a recent morning riding the rails for the sole purpose of checking out these installations and came away wowed by the entire experience, particularly a perception-challenging sculpture called ‘The Passenger’ by Brandon Vickerd at the Research and Technology station.
GAUK AT IT!
Take the ION to Victoria Park or Kitchener City Hall stations and you’ll be within steps of Downtown Kitchener’s Gaukel Block, a pedestrian-only street at Gaukel St. and Charles St. W.. Bike, walk, or drive, if you’d prefer, just be sure to check out the region’s newest permanent home for art, which also serves as a corridor to between Victoria Park and Carl Zehr Square.
The Gaukel Block officially opened in June and will host a variety of special events including regular weekly offerings. Indigenous artists Alanah Jewell and Luke Swinson are among those whose work is featured within the must-visit, vibrant and Insta-worthy hub.
From the Gaukel Block, venture over to nearby Halls Lane in downtown Kitchener, where you’ll discover a series of lively murals on the many historic buildings running parallel to King St.
Each mural tells a story entirely its own and collectively they bring a certain vibrance to the downtown core. Murals by dozens of local artists can be found throughout several blocks in #DTK.
Stroll Walking Tours is an ideal way to gain context and insight into each piece of art. Stroll was launched by Juanita Metzger in June 2020, offering curated walks throughout the region, including mural-specific strolls in Kitchener and Cambridge.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Arguably one of the best places in the region to take a stroll is in the Village of St. Jacobs, where Stroll Walking Tours has smartly set up shop to offer a historic walking tour.
A self-guided art walk is also a fantastic way to see it all, including artist Stephanie Boutari’s colourful St. Jacobs mural, a horse-and-buggy mural by an unknown artist, and the massive and detailed ‘Song of the Harvest Moon,’ by Ian Pierce and assistant Guiliano Da Lorenzo Pino. St. Jacobs is also home to one of my favourite works in the region — ‘Wildflowers,’ located at the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre.
While you’ll require a plane ticket to see some of it, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the talent on display at the Region of Waterloo International Airport’s ART at YKF Gallery.
Among the highlights is Ernest Daetwyler’s ‘The Wall of Nightmares and Dreams.’ Created in 2010, the sculptural work features plastic toys collected in Waterloo Region. It arrived at the Breslau airport in June (you can see it in the Departure lounge) and will be available for viewing until June 2025.
“When we travel, we think about what makes a place unique and memorable,” said Barbara Hobot, Public Art and Culture Specialist with the Region of Waterloo who has headed up the airport project. “The artists that live and work in Waterloo Region are a huge part of what makes this area distinct, vibrant, and multifaceted.
“Showcasing art at YKF is a way to share our stories in a place that’s emblematic of cultural exchange,” she added. “The Wall of Nightmares and Dreams is a true conversation starter for travelers: a chance to pique childhood memories, get lost in the landscape of toys, and – for those wanting a bit more – an opportunity to get drawn into the various tableaus and interpret the ‘easter eggs’ that Daetwlyer cleverly installed throughout the sculpture.”
FRUITS OF OUR LABOR
It pales in height compared to the residential condo tower behind it, but Timothy Schmalz’s eight-metre tall sculpture in Uptown Waterloo will easily grab your attention.
Nestled in front of 181 King St. S. – the former Brick Brewery – you’ll find an interesting art piece ripe for attention. Banana depicts several monkeys dropping down to get a gorilla, who is holding a smartphone. The artist says the sculpture is a nod to the region being the tech hub of Canada.
This work is best visited at night when the banana on the gorilla’s smartphone lights up.
BUILDINGS AS ART
It might not officially register as public art, but the reclaimed historic buildings found within the region – Uptown Waterloo and downtown Kitchener specifically – exude character. Whether it’s the stenciled logo against the yellowish brick of the Tannery Building on Charles St. W. in Kitchener, the Rumpel Felt Co. building at the corner of Victoria and Duke Sts., or the perfectly symmetrical ‘Seagram Distillers’ logo atop the Seagram Lofts building on Father David Bauer Dr. in Waterloo, it’s all glorious nostalgia to view through the art lens.