Artist, teacher, environmentalist. Born on Dec. 21, 1945, in Ilford, England; died on May 26, 2016, in Caledon, Ont., from sudden heart failure, aged 70.
Noel Harding lived life in the perpetual present. Every new art project consumed him and those around him. He could be inspiring. He could be difficult. He lived in a world where art came first.
Noel arrived from England as a child and by the 1970s he was among a handful of artists building a reputation for Canada in what was then the new field of video art, a practice he taught as an instructor at the University of Guelph. Some of his videos appeared in his extensive 1988 survey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which also included installation works that filled the contemporary wing with silvery balloons floating in the air and a brood of white chickens foraging for food on a gallery-long conveyor belt.
Noel was a rule breaker. He expanded the vocabulary of sculpture with motorized parts, plastic materials and a propensity for animal imagery. During the 1980s at Toronto's Ydessa Gallery, every show pushed into uncharted territory. In a work called Scenic Elements on a Path of Upheaval, carted heads of lettuce moved in procession across the gallery like doomed French aristocrats, while goldfish swam along the walls in channels of water-filled cellophane. In First, Second and Third Attempts to Achieve Heaven, sequenced red lights lit up a bulky steel box on which tiny, mechanized sparrow wings flapped in search of absurd liftoff. Across the room, The Monument to Decision Making showed a transparent light bulb testing a death wish as it clinked dangerously against a column of concrete.
Noel knew about failure and anxiety. He could rail about the insecurities of being an artist in Canada, where resources tend to flow to emerging artists and stall out for those in mid-career. His solution was to leave for the Netherlands and to make a move from gallery art to public art, which proved a better match for the scale of his ambitions.
An early effort on his return to Canada brought a trio of steel hydro towers to the Mississauga Civic Centre. Like visiting magi, they each held aloft a new tree for the city. His best-known work, Elevated Wetlands, can be seen from Toronto's Don Valley Parkway. The sculpture looks like a herd of grazing elephants sectioned at chest-height into open pots. A pump system draws in polluted water, filters it through granulated plastic, and returns clear water to the river below while wind-blown foliage takes root inside.
Noel was an improver, and environmental concerns came to preoccupy him. Living with his partner, Martha Scroggins, in a laboratory-like riverside studio in Caledon, he devised numerous sculptures that explored emerging green technologies. His son, Yaleh, would visit on weekends and bring the grandchildren to lend a hand.
Noel loved the chance to pitch his projects in person. Like a revivalist, he could transform stiff caution about his art into enthusiastic approval. People left feeling that the world was somehow higher, wider and deeper than it was before. Noel's expansive gift, like his fierce blue eyes, would light the room.
Richard Rhodes is a friend of Noel's.