World-renowned photographer and St. Catharines native Edward Burtynsky wants to turn an 180,000-pound metal forge at the former General Motors plant on Ontario Street into a major public work of art for the city.

Burtynsky shared his idea with the council Monday night for the “Balancing Forge” play that would mark the factory’s importance in the town’s industrial history and honor everyone who worked there, including his father.

“It occurred to me that wouldn’t it be fascinating to take this relic of this industry in downtown St. Catharines and make something memorable out of it? Do something that will stand as the testament of time,” he told the council, appearing via Zoom.

An Order of Canada recipient well known for his work focused on how industry transforms nature, Burtynsky said his career was inspired by his childhood in St. Catharines. He told council that as a child of seven, he was able to see the great forges at work at the Ontario Street factory.

“They were the defining sound. Every time I passed or we drove by, it was ‘boom boom boom’. Those of you may recall it was an incredible sound that reverberated throughout the city, sort of defining the soundscape of St. Catharines.

He said seeing the factory himself made him realize the complexity of the industry.

“It really inspired my work as an artist to try to pull the curtain behind those walls and bring the camera into those spaces and show them to the world.”

Burtynsky has traveled to more than 40 countries capturing the Industrial Revolution, most recently to Africa to see how Chinese companies are setting up factories there.

This summer, his immersive film installation “In the Wake of Progress” premiered at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto and is now touring the world.

Four years ago, Burtynsky passed by the Ontario Street factory and noticed a single 15ft Ajax forge on the demolished site. It was the largest of the seven forges used to press steel and had not been removed like the others because it was so large.

“As soon as I saw it, it caught my imagination and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a relic’.”

He took photos, created a 3D scan, and decided he wanted to levitate the huge piece of steel.

He said he had spoken with engineers and it was possible to balance the 180,000-pound piece of metal on its tip.

City councilors unanimously passed a motion directing city staff to begin the process of working with Burtynsky and his team that could lead to the installation of a ‘historic and meaningful’ piece of public art for the city .

No timeline or cost was discussed Monday night. A location for the potential piece is up for review, but Burtynsky shared an artist’s rendering of the corner of Ontario and Carlton streets across from the factory on city-owned land.

The owners of 282-285 Ontario Street have given their consent for the use of the forge as part of a public art installation.

The work would be the first of its kind by Burtynsky.

“Given Edward’s career and his current situation in the world, this will be an important opportunity for public art in our community that will truly capture the history of St. Catharines and point it towards a much different future. “said Mayor Walter Sendzik, whose grandfather, father and brother worked at the plant.

“At the same time, the respect that is shown to our past with Ed’s piece here is quite substantial.”

St. Patrick’s County. Karrie Porter said it was a “joy” to move the motion.

She said there will be something new on the former GM lands and she hopes it will be sustainable transit-oriented development.

“It will be a great relic of the past – a work of art where we can pay homage to what was here and what built our community, but also look forward to where our community needs to go. Our community needs to move in a better environmental direction and that will help us move forward.


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