Kitchener-Waterloo·Point of View

Why a Waterloo artist is hanging boxes with trinkets in his neighbourhood

CBC intern Flora Pan noticed metal boxes with candles, photos and music boxes playing unfamiliar songs hanging on fences and posts in uptown Waterloo and decided she had to find out who was behind them.

'They’re meant to amuse and entertain, but they’re also meant to be thought-provoking'

Top half of a mysterious beige box I found in the uptown Waterloo neighbourhood. (Flora Pan/CBC)

A lengthy conversation about art and climate change occupied my Thursday afternoon in an artist's home studio in uptown Waterloo.

"I am trying to give people an experience in my art of having to wait, wondering if something is going to happen or not. Trying to figure out if something happens, what will it be," Paul Roorda said.

Standing inside the small studio nested on the second floor of his home, he told me how he explores the idea of time and its ties with climate change and how we perceive it though his sculptures.

He likened it to the process of finding evidence for climate change and the waiting game involved.

This interaction with Roorda was a week in the making.

And it began with me finding a box.

Bottom half of the first box I spotted in the neighbourhood, on a foot path nearby Menno Street and Dawson Street. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Spotting something strange 

It was Monday, and I was sweating in my cardigan under the hot mid-day sun, rushing to find shade back at my summer sublet.

About two minutes from my place, I glanced up from my phone and saw a beige metal box nailed to the wooden fence on the foot path connecting Seagram Lofts to Dawson Street.

It was about the size of a shoe box, and contained a flask filled with water, which slightly magnified a black and white photograph of a woman with two children behind the flask. There was also a used candle, an old clock and most intriguingly, a music box that played an unfamiliar tune.

A similar box first caught my interest last month. It was black, and inside was a photo of children playing in the water by a beach.

I had to know who put these boxes here, so I tucked a note in the box, hoping to hear from the artist.

Talk of the neighbourhood

I wasn't the only one with questions about these mysterious boxes.

Over the next few days, I had a series of conversations with people in my neighbourhood who had also spotted them. 

One of them, Jen Love, said her son and daughter were fascinated by the objects inside.  

Love said her daughter described the tune from the music box as "music that ghosts would make."

I later received an email from Michelle Lewis who also lived in uptown Waterloo. She had seen my note tucked into the beige box.

"He's is a very talented guy — all the neighbours are talking about it," Lewis wrote.

Going home from work that afternoon, a teenage girl walking her bike told me that she had found all of the boxes. She then showed me a photo of a name tag she found inside one.

All conversations pointed to Paul Roorda.

Paul Roorda was the artist in residence for Kitchener, Ont. in 2007. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Art meant to disrupt routines

Roorda responded to my email, confirming that he was the artist behind the mysterious boxes. He said he was happy to chat over the phone.

He told me the public art project is meant to disrupt people's routines.

"They're meant to amuse and entertain, but they're also meant to be thought-provoking," he said.

The boxes have various photographs in them, including images of floods. Roorda said he also included statements and items that hint at the anxiety we have around climate change.

"I think it sort of reflects our daily awareness of weather," he said. "We're thinking about the weather, we're thinking about the climate, we're thinking about climate change."

The dark images paired with old objects become more eerie when unfamiliar tunes play from the attached music box.

He sourced music boxes from flea markets and thrift stores. He broke off the chimes to create new tunes with an air of darkness and melancholy.

Time or weather

Roorda's second-floor studio is filled with old encyclopedias and books, large glass equipment and other antique artifacts he has collected over the years.The competition for space was fierce. Past and present were melting into one another, with Roorda's art projects stacking on top of his collection of old items. 

Despite the limited space, sunlight coming in through a small skylight on the slanted roof made it feel open.

Artist Paul Roorda collected old photographs over the years and created collages using different materials. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Roorda told me his undergraduate studies in sociology inspired a lot of his older artwork that explored how people dealt with the ideas of science and religion.

In recent years, he has taken an interest in climate change.

"A lot of these pieces with the boxes, they have expressions about time or weather. And it's like, how do we use language to create our thoughts, or to justify our actions," he said.

As he spoke, a clock ticked. It was an older piece created using a clock mechanism, placed on a ledge on the wall by the stairs leading to his studio.

He replaced chimes of the clock with strings that would rock a boat back and forth when the clock strikes 12. If you were to see the piece in a gallery, you'd have to be there at just the right time.  

Roorda explained it was his way of simulating the long time lapse involved in climate change.

Several of the first installations that Roorda put up in May, displayed on a ledge on a wall by his stairs at home. (Flora Pan/CBC)

As he stood on the stairs, surrounded by his art, he reflected on how the urgency of climate change seems to have disappeared.

"As I've worked with my ideas, it became more and more regularly reported on in the news. So much that it has become that fifth page in the newspaper," he said.

His clock project continued to tick.

"It's interesting to me because you can live as if it's not going to happen, because the change is kind of slow according to our human day-to-day timeframe," he said.

Tick. Tick.

"Yet on a bigger time frame, in terms of generations, the change is actually very, very quick."


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