There are 403 steps leading from the Vancouver Island University Students’ Union Pub up to the edge of the Nanaimo Parkway. Amber Morrison knows this because she counted every one of them.
The VIU student is in her final year studying fine arts and since Dec. 11 she has been spending most days, sometimes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., stencilling numbers onto the school’s longest set of stairs from the bottom to the top. By Dec. 21, about 24 hours and five cans of bubblegum-pink spray paint into the project, she made it to step 326. She said she’s around seven hours and two cans from completing the work. She calls it An End and a Beginning.
“I wanted to have a conceptual art piece that people would intuitively just look at and be able to understand. I didn’t want to be exclusive or exclusionary about it so I wanted to make something straightforward,” Morrison said.
“I started thinking about my time here at VIU and how much work I’ve put into this degree … so I wanted to do something that was useful to everybody and overall represented the metaphor of really hard work and the grind from starting to finishing something.”
Morrison, who describes herself as a “cross-disciplinary” artist, also serves as program co-ordinator for the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s Code Switching student art collective.
She set out to create An End and a Beginning because she was interested in creating a repetitive, cumulative work that serves as a “response” to her environment. It’s also her first large-scale piece of public art and the first in which she’s had permission of the property owner.
She was drawn to the stairs as a symbol of progress because students regularly use them for exercise and a friend of hers counts them to ease anxiety. Also, she always wondered just how many stairs there were.
“I kind of really wanted to do something easy, literal and still thought-provoking,” she said.
Morrison got permission for the work by successfully pitching it to her instructor as a class project, meaning she will be graded on the end result.
“The wording I’ve used is that, ‘I’m activating the stairs as a sculpture by numbering it and I’m getting people to consider it in a different way.’ So I got away with that,” she said.
In order to proceed with the project Morrison needed to go through a few levels of approval, including from the groundskeepers. She said she received positive feedback while completing her work, including from a passing groundskeeper who saw the practical uses of numbering the steps.
“He was really enthusiastic because he said that this will make it so much easier to meet with other employees, to determine if stairs need repairs, like, ‘Stair 117 has a crack? I can dispatch a guy and get him out there and he’ll know exactly which step it is now,’” she said.
“Initially, this was supposed to run for a duration until February, but I’ve had multiple people come up and be like, ‘Can we just keep this indefinitely?’ So here’s hoping.”