Client: Great Gulf
Location: Toronto, ON, Canada
Completion date: 2021
Artwork budget: $400,000
Project manager - fabrication
Mayer of Munich
Museumpros Art Services Inc.
Graziani + Corazza Architects
Prime Light Boxes
Model Railings and Iron Works
Shea’s Victoria consists of six hand-painted float glass lightboxes commissioned by Great Gulf in Toronto. The artist’s designs recall the elaborate Beaux-Arts décor of Shea’s Victoria Theatre, which stood on this site from 1910 to 1956.
The client approached Katharine Harvey in 2016 to create a series of large-scale artworks at 25 Richmond Street East. Renowned glass studio Mayer of Munich fabricated the artist’s designs for the 420 square feet of hand-painted float glass in three areas on the site. A feat of engineering, the complex framing systems hold three layers of glass spaced four inches apart in depth, the first of their kind constructed on this scale. LED panels provide backlighting for the windows located at street level in public areas.
The most prominent art feature on Richmond Street measures 8 by 34 feet. Harvey’s design based on the Beaux-Arts harp and laurel motif features overlapping panes of glass and repetitions of patterns that reference the first “moving pictures” of celluloid film. Ornate columns form the basis for three lightboxes in the interior passageway, each 80 by 40 inches. One window, 10 by 8 feet, is located on the outdoor pedestrian mews and is based on decorative railings from the theatre.
As part of the rezoning process, Toronto City Council recommended that Great Gulf integrate art features on Richmond Street East to enhance the public realm. The Council decision also stipulated creating a publicly accessible interior pedestrian walkway through the property. The objectives of the art features were to provide interest and vibrancy to the north wall facing Richmond Street East visible from the sidewalk and act as wayfinding for the north lobby entrance as part of the walking path through the site. Another goal was to have the public art serve as a reminder of the site's architectural heritage by drawing inspiration from the historic buildings previously located here and interpreting this imagery in an expressive and abstract manner.
At the City of Toronto Archives, the artist found blueprints from the original vaudeville theatre developed by the Shea brothers from Buffalo, New York, in 1908. While the facade was relatively modest, Leon H. Lempert and Son Architects in Rochester, New York, designed the ornate, Beaux-Arts style interior. Their elaborate blueprint designs form the basis for the artist's brilliant multi-coloured patterns featured on the glass.
Great Gulf and Nicholas Metivier Gallery advised the artist on her final designs. She painted half of the project life-size on layers of Duralar film in her studio.
The artist worked together with Mayer of Munich to realize her vision. Harvey visited their studios twice before beginning her designs. She spent one week in Munich producing colour tests and hand-painted samples. Due to Covid's travel restrictions, she could not attend the fabrication process. Instead, technicians couriered final colour and brushstroke samples to her studio in Toronto. She advised the Master Craftswomen from a distance as they painted her designs in playful and virtuosic ways.
The design of the LED-backlit lightboxes holding the float glass demanded direction from Graziani + Corazza Architects and Quest Window Systems. Engineering Link conducted an air barrier study and planned custom back pans that act as a thermal bridging system to avoid condensation. Tucker HiRise provided integral management for the construction and installation process. Museumpros helped develop the metal framing systems for the 100-pound glass panes together with Model Railing and Ironworks. Finally, experts at Museumpros installed the final artworks over several weeks.
The artist varies her linear patterns on three different panes of glass, each installed in front of the other. The forms coalesce and break apart, appearing to be in motion as the viewer walks past. She liquifies the Beaux-Arts decorations into a riot of curving shapes and colour saturated brushstrokes. On the largest window facing Richmond Street East, the third layer of glass furthest from the viewer, boldly painted red lines trace the ancient Greek harp and laurel motif. On the middle glass pane appears a set of multi-coloured lines echoing these shapes. This glass layer also has a blueprint of the image, created by transparent lines being wiped through a blue glaze to reveal colours beneath. Finally, the closest layer to the viewer consists of multi-coloured lines which repeat the ornamentation. Mayer of Munich developed a ceramic glazing technique that permanently fuses to glass when fired in a kiln. The method is a free form stained glass technique. The resultant glazes are tactile, showing congealing and thickened paint in different areas, creating a visceral and expressive effect.