by Stevie Wilson | Most know him as the artist who created The Crab, the famous monument that welcomes visitors to the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre and Museum of Vancouver, but it would be a great disservice to George Norris to forget his many other works across the city (portrait via DesignKultur). Inspired as he was by both the material and the abstract, he was an artist that seamlessly blended form with function, and Vancouver is all the more uniquely beautiful as a consequence.
Norris was born on December 24th, 1928 in Victoria (it, too, can boast many of his unique works, such as at the Public Library). After studying at the Vancouver School of Art (present-day Emily Carr University, where he went on to lecture for a brief period), he attended Syracuse University and London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. Following his return to BC, he produced a number of public art pieces in Vancouver, which gained him considerable local distinction.
The Crab, completed in 1968, was part of a series of artistic and architectural projects designed to coincide with Vancouver’s centennial celebrations. Norris’ concept for a 20’ stainless steel crustacean beat out two other competitors in a contest held by a women’s centennial sub-committee. The sculpture cost $20,000 and was assembled near present-day Olympic Village on 2nd Avenue with the help of welder Gus Lidberg. Many Vancouverites will remember that the large piece had to be barged down False Creek to the fountain site. The significance of the crab symbol is two-fold: it represents the First Nations legend of the crab as a protector of the harbour, and also happened to have been the zodiac sign at the time of the centennial.
The University of British Columbia is also home to several works by Norris, all of which represent different themes and exhibit his wide range of technical skills. Mother and Child, which now sits outside the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, is one of his earliest Vancouver pieces. The cast bronze sculpture was donated anonymously in 1957, and was originally intended to match a companion piece, Father and Child, outside the Education Building. Due to construction delays, the second iteration was never finished.
Inside the courtyard at the entrance to the Macmillan Building is a 2’ high granite sculpture entitled Man About to Plant or Pick Alfalfa. Dean Blythe Eagles, who also commissioned Norris to complete a plaster installation in the Agriculture faculty room, donated the piece in 1967. The sculpture serves as a memorial to Eagles’ parents as well as those involved in agricultural labour. The nearby Frank Forward Building features an incredible brick mosaic that was intended to help highlight the entrance. The protruding wall is decorated on both sides with large brick hexagons, some of which also feature industrial-inspired designs created by pressing metal into the brick before it was fired. This distinctive structural accent reflects Norris’ reputation as an artist who saw the practical and elegant partnership between architecture and art.
Other local works by Norris include the 1966 cast-in-place concrete frieze bordering the Canada Post Office at Pine and 8th Avenue; The Swimmer, a bronze sculpture outside the Vancouver Aquatic Centre along Beach Avenue; and the 6-sphere glass/Plexiglas prism at Georgia and Beatty (since removed). One of his most recognizable pieces was an unnamed stainless steel pinwheel installed outside the entrance to Pacific Centre Mall in 1974. Unfortunately, the large modernist design was removed in 1988 by developers and donated to the city of Surrey. In 1996 a section of the steel design was famously mistaken for scrap metal and destroyed; the artist was understandably upset with this revelation (not to mention the work had been worth $50,000).
The legacy of Norris’ work continues to influence art in Vancouver, and in 2010 he was a recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award in Public Art. In 2013 Norris passed away at the age of 84, and despite him being remembered as an icon in the world of public art and urban innovation, his name unfortunately remains unfamiliar to many.
With the landscape of Vancouver changing at such a rapid pace, it’s worth taking note of the various forms, both architectural and artistic, that have come to define our impressions of this city. Take yourself on a self-guided tour to see how many of Norris’ pieces you can spot—fortunately for us, he made his work both easy to find and enjoy.