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The crab sculpture at Vancouver’s MacMillan Space Centre is one of the most photographed works of art in British Columbia. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
The crab sculpture at Vancouver’s MacMillan Space Centre is one of the most photographed works of art in British Columbia. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)


Creator of Vancouver’s steel crab sculpture remembered Add to ...

The crab rises from a pool, pincers raised overhead, a magnificent six-metre-tall sculpture rendered in stainless steel.

For 45 years, the gleaming decapod crustacean has guarded the entrance to what is now the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in a park on the Vancouver waterfront. Designed by George Norris, who has died at 84, the crab is a work of public art that has won the approval of the public as well as that of art critics.

The Norris crab, which is located in the middle of a fountain, is one of the most photographed works of art in British Columbia, a favourite of tourists and schoolchildren. It is certainly better known than its creator. Mr. Norris preferred anonymity to celebrity, and opposed what he described as a “cult of personality” in the art world. He left most of his works unsigned and often refused to name his works, believing a title would affect a viewers’ interpretation of the art.

The artist’s penchant for leaving works untitled did not prevent some of his works from being labelled. An abstract stainless-steel sculpture on a man-made grassy knoll at the University of Calgary has been nicknamed the Prairie Chicken for its avian sweep. Over the years, it has been covered in molasses, feathers and toilet paper as part of campus pranks.

Less playful was a city worker’s judgment on an abstract Norris piece, which was mistaken for scrap metal. Part of a sculpture that had once stood at Vancouver’s major downtown intersection was destroyed, a heartbreaking experience for the artist.

George Alexander Norris was born on Christmas Eve in 1928 in Victoria to Christina and George Norris, who worked for the federal government as a customs agent responsible for investigating smugglers.

His parents were encouraged by grade-school teachers to provide the precocious young talent with art lessons. He later graduated from the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design) and studied at Syracuse University under the guidance of Ivan Mestrovic, the shepherd boy of Croatian ancestry who was proclaimed as the greatest sculptor of religious figures since the Renaissance. Mr. Norris also served as the master’s personal studio assistant.

In 1955, he was awarded one of three British Council scholarships for Canadians to study in Britain. He chose sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, making an extensive tour of European museums and galleries before returning to Canada.

One of his earliest public pieces was Mother and Child, a cast bronze originally intended for the entrance to a new Education Building on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The building’s construction was delayed, so the sculpture was placed near the main library. A companion piece, to be titled Father and Child, was never completed.

The campus is home to several other notable Norris works, including a granite sculpture commissioned by Blythe Eagles, dean of agriculture at the university, as a memorial to his parents. The untitled work is known as Man About to Plant or Pick Alfalfa.

Mr. Norris emerged as one of the most prominent artists in the city by the time of Canada’s centennial in 1967. He sculpted lead figures in stained-glass windows to represent the Stations of the Cross at Holy Name Parish church in Vancouver. An artwork had been commissioned for placement in the lobby of the new Pacific Press building, publisher of the city’s two daily newspapers. (Mr. Norris rendered welded and beaten copper into an abstract form in which the upper body of a masculine figure transforms from three-dimensions into the two-dimensions of print.) A postal station in the city’s Kitsilano neighbourhood opened in 1967, featuring a 29-metre-long exterior concrete frieze of abstract design.

A women’s group of the Vancouver Centennial Committee held a contest seeking proposals for art to grace the entrance to a new building in Vanier Park. Lumber magnate H.R. MacMillan had donated funds for a planetarium on the site. The building, which looked to some like a flying saucer, was designed by the architect Gerald Hamilton to reflect the shape of the conical headwear worn by the Haida people.

The sculptor also found inspiration in Haida legend, as it is said the crab is the creature who guards a harbour. The women’s group held a series of crab “bruncheons” in members’ homes to raise funds to cover the cost of the artwork.

The pieces of the stainless-steel sculpture were welded by Gus Lidberg over a three-month period at a shop near Main Street before being barged along False Creek to the park. It was installed in a fountain just two weeks before the opening of the planetarium in October, 1968. The sculpture was an immediate sensation.

“The crab, with its pincers raised menacingly, seems to challenge the visitor to acknowledge nature’s dominion before entering the building,” the Vancouver Sun observed.

Six years later, another Norris work was placed in Pacific Centre Plaza at the intersection of Georgia and Granville. A black bank tower loomed over the windswept plaza. He designed a 13.4-metre-tall abstract stainless steel sculpture of pinwheel design, working on it for nearly a year before erecting it overnight one day in September, 1974. The piece went unnamed.

“I wanted people to see it their own way, so it has no name,” he said at the time. “People see different things in it.”

By 1987, the owners of the plaza no longer wanted the sculpture. It was removed from the site, leaving the artist angry and frustrated.

“Vancouver chews us up and spits us out,” he complained to reporter Douglas Sagi.

The suburban city of Surrey asked for the work, which had an estimated value of $50,000. It remained in storage at a city works yard while awaiting placement. Then, one day in 1996, a worker mistook part of the piece for used industrial piping, sending it away to a scrap dealer for recycling.

Another Norris sculpture was so neglected by the city over the years the artist asked for it to be destroyed. At the west end of the Georgia Viaduct in a traffic island known as Abutment Park, he designed a welded bronze pedestal holding six glass spheres filled with chemical liquids. These were designed to reflect the headlights and tail lights of passing vehicles.

Mr. Norris was a little-known figure outside the art world despite his many public pieces that served as backdrops to everyday life. In Vancouver, he was also responsible for The Swimmer, a playful silicon bronze sculpture outside the Aquatic Centre in Vancouver; a jade sculpture in a reflecting pool at VanDusen Botanical Garden; a brick-and-metal wall sculpture at the entrance to the Metallurgy Building at UBC; an aluminum caduceus on the exterior of a medical building (“more a logo than a sculpture,” he once said); and, a sheet-metal sculpture in the middle of a fountain set within a triangular traffic island in North Vancouver.

Mr. Norris made an an oak lectern for St. Saviour’s Anglican church in Penticton, B.C., as well as teak doors for the Sam Ketcham pool at Williams Lake, B.C.

In his birthplace of Victoria, his two most prominent works are exterior façade panels at the University of Victoria library and a hanging piece in a covered courtyard of the central branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. The abstract piece is known as Dynamic Mobile Steel Sculpture.

Mr. Norris was an anti-materialist and an early environmentalist, preferring the simple rural life of raising sheep and chickens at his home at Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. He worked at many jobs over the years, including miner, logger, surveyor and mill worker. After he was established as an artist, he taught at several institutions.

He was married to the former Phyllis Piddington, a teacher who had grown up at Wychbury, an Esquimalt mansion on Vancouver Island acreage converted into a riding stable during the Depression.

The couple returned to Victoria from nearby Shawnigan Lake a few years ago after Mr. Norris suffered a head injury during a fall while hiking.

In 2010, he received a Mayor’s Arts Award for his public works from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Mr. Norris died on March 12 at the Mount Edwards Court care home in Victoria. He leaves Phyllis, his wife of 53 years; a daughter, Anna; sons Samuel and Alexander, the latter a Montreal city councillor; and five grandchildren.

Even in retirement, Mr. Norris continued creating art. The lintels above the door at the Shawnigan Lake Community Centre include the carved faces of his friends and neighbours.

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