“Excuse me – do you guys mind if I sit here to watch for the bus?”
If you want some idea of how bad my vision was five years ago, there’s no better example of what it’s like to be visually impaired.
My query was addressed to the two lovers perched on a bench facing Christina Street, in front of the Sarnia Library. They really seemed to want to be by themselves, but there was no better spot to watch for my Wellington Street bus.
Even though they ignored me, it took me a minute to realize that they weren’t real.
Even then, it never occurred to me that this was only one example of a sculpture that appears in cities across the world.
Known as The Secret Bench of Knowledge, the bronze sculpture was created by Canadian artist Lea Vivot of Kleinburg, Ont. It depicts a young boy and girl sitting on a park bench. The boy is whispering into the girl’s ear.
The sculpture first appeared in Canada one evening in early May of 1989. The artist had, unannounced and almost clandestinely, placed it in front of the National Archives building in Ottawa. Vivot told the Ottawa Citizen that she felt the building “needed something,” and chose to simply leave the sculpture in front of the building as an alternative to the tedious bureaucracy that would have ensued if she had attempted to place it officially.
Five years later, the original sculpture was replaced with a more permanent version. The unveiling drew a crowd of 3,000. The new casting contained a unique twist. It included scores of messages relaying the hopes and dreams of various writers, including schoolchildren. Some were prayers for world peace – others hopes for domestic tranquility between divorcing parents. Gabriel McBride, a young blind boy from Alberta, had his message inscribed in Braille.
Some messages extolled the pleasures or the importance of reading. Those messages making the bench’s placement in front of Sarnia’s main public library particularly fitting.
The Sarnia Public Library and Art Gallery purchased The Secret Bench in 1990 for $75,000. Valued at $150,000, the purchase represented especially good value as an artistic acquisition.
Castings of The Secret Bench of Knowledge can also be found in front of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, in Montreal at McGill University, and internationally at the United Nations, in Bonita Springs, Florida, in London, England outside the Stock Exchange, and in Prague in the Czech Republic.
My vision has vastly improved over the past five years. I don’t speak to the boy and girl on The Secret Bench anymore, but I still quite often sit with them in silence after spending time at the library, waiting for my Wellington Street bus.
Phil Egan is a member of the Sarnia Accessibility Advisory Committee and a CNIB client.