Cannon Gets a Makeunder

Stripping the cannon down to bare metal and concrete is an act of art

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Dawn Johnston prepares to unpaint the cannon by building a work shelter to shield her from weather and prying eyes.

Art can take on many forms, such as painting and sculpture, but for MFA student Dawn Johnston, art is an act. “An action can be as artful as an object,” she says. “Art doesn’t have to be an object of veneration in a gallery.”

Starting Sept. 25, Johnston will begin her own act of art by removing the paint on the cannon, one of the University’s most recognizable monuments.

“A lot of my work in the past has dealt with historical objects,” she says. “I was taking apart objects that have some kind of social or cultural significance to understand them in a contemporary context.”

Her previous projects have involved deconstructing common objects like a man’s suit, from which she removed every horizontal thread, transforming it into a fringe. She did the same to a cloth-covered loveseat, leaving nothing but the vertical threads, springs and wood frame. The cannon, affectionately known as “Old Jeremiah,” will undergo its own transformation.

In 1878, a group of students at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) formed a battery unit that became the Ontario Field Battery of Artillery. Soon after, the college acquired the George the Third cannon to teach students about gunnery. Students also took lessons in artillery and rifle drill from Captain Walter Clark, a veteran of the Crimean War.

The OAC annual report noted: “The formation of a field battery of artillery, consisting of 74 non-commissioned officers and men from amongst our students, bears good fruit in straightening up lads fresh from the farm, in disciplining those newly from schools in cities, and in forming an esprit de corps amongst the mass of the students.”

In 1913, students fired the cannon at 1 a.m., prompting college officials to silence it by filling it with cement. The cannon was placed in several locations on campus before it was permanently cemented in Branion Plaza in 1973, aimed menacingly at the University Centre’s administration offices.

Johnston says students began painting the cannon as a protest against war. The former weapon now has a more peaceful role as a message board for students to paint and decorate. “It’s an object of expression, but at the same time, it’s an object of joke,” she says, referring to the cannon’s many incarnations over the years.

According to campus tradition, painting can begin after sundown and must be completed by sunrise. It’s not unusual for the cannon to get several makeovers per night.

Paint stripping can be a laborious and time-consuming process. Using a chisel, scraper and wire brush, she expects to spend about eight hours a day working on the cannon, surrounded by a wooden enclosure that will shield her from the elements and prying eyes. “I don’t want people to look at me like I’m a monkey,” she says. “I hate that.” Posters featuring reproductions of archival photos of the cannon will cover the outside of the enclosure.

Johnston estimates it will take her at least one week to strip thousands of layers of paint that have accumulated on the cannon since it was last restored in 1983. Most of today’s U of G students weren’t even born in 1983; many long-time staff will no doubt be anxious for another look at Old Jeremiah’s bare bones. But it may be a fleeting glimpse.

After Johnston’s work is done, there will be no dramatic “reveal;” no drum roll; no curtain rising. In much the same way she started this “act of art” on Saturday morning, she will simply dismantle her wooden enclosure, pack up her supplies and leave under the cloak of darkness. It’s entirely possible that the cannon will be repainted before the sun rises, but Johnston doesn’t mind.

“I know it’s a futile act,” she says of her paint-stripping project. “It will instantly go back to what it was before.”