Ottawans get a surprise as giraffes come marching in

By Erin Letson

What’s tall, long-necked and spotted all over? A giraffe, of course! Handmade versions of the creature were the main attraction outside of Bridgehead Coffee House in the Wellington Village recently.

Kera Willis, a local artist and Bridgehead employee, says she decided to put on the giraffe installation as a statement of random art. She posted the event on the Internet, asking people to bring their own giraffes made out of whatever materials they pleased.

“It was sort of an experiment,” says Willis. “I really don’t remember where the idea came from, but putting a whole bunch of giraffes on the street corner seemed like a really interesting thing to do.”

Ten people brought giraffes of all shapes, colours and sizes to the corner of Wellington and Caroline streets. There was a tall wooden giraffe neck sticking out of a sewer grate, as well as paper maché and stuffed versions. Another giraffe was made of old pizza boxes, while one was a cookie hanging from a tree. Willis brought a flat wooden giraffe she created, which folded out of a suitcase.

“Giraffes are gentle, kind creatures and when you put them in silly poses, the obvious reaction is a smile,” says Gina Becker, marketing manager for Bridgehead who came to the installation with her young son. “Kids love it, but grown-ups have stopped as well. It’s really unexpected.”

When Willis started setting up the giraffes, passers-by didn’t know what to think and she says it wasn’t until kids started coming up to the installation that people really began to accept it.

“I always enjoy getting to watch people in that really strange moment where they’re not really sure if they want to admit they’re actually seeing what they’re seeing,” says Willis. “They don’t really know if they should check it out or just keep walking and there’s that whole conflict on their face.”

It was clear that most people walking by didn’t know what to make of Willis’ idea. There were a lot of “what is this?” comments and questioning looks. Xavier Gutierrez says he was driving by Bridgehead with his wife and son and was immediately intrigued by the giraffes.

“It’s good to see things like this on the sidewalk because it makes things a little more lively,” he says. “I think everyone that walks by stops and looks at it.”

Christine Turnbull, a resident of the neighbourhood, agreed the giraffes were a fun idea for the community, but says she didn’t know what to think when she came to Bridgehead for her morning coffee.

“It was weird. I was wondering if it was linked to a new coffee or a ‘Save Africa’ type of thing,” says Turnbull.

Willis says she got reactions similar to Turnbull’s throughout the day, adding that people were constantly searching for an explanation.

“It seems like people have been conditioned that if there’s anything weird and strange happening, it’s got to have something to do with advertising or a charity,” Willis says. “But the whole idea that it was just for fun was a totally foreign concept to many people.”

Growing up with an artist mother influenced her to follow a similar path, says Willis. Along with creating giraffes, Willis also writes and plays in a band. A few hours after setting up, she and a group of friends started playing mandolins beside the installation, which drew even more people in. She says the giraffe idea was the first time she had put together a public installation and that she received a bigger response than expected.

“I think that anything that can jar people out of their expected, everyday, normal view of what the world is supposed to be like has got to be beneficial in some way, even if it just makes someone smile because it’s weird and strange and freaky,” Willis says, adding that she picked giraffes in particular because they’re very unique creatures. Most of the giraffe creators opted to leave their creatures with Willis for the time being so she can show them in other places around the city. She says she plans to put on another event after Christmas, perhaps with the giraffes skating on the canal or something similarly ridiculous.

“It definitely won’t be the same thing again and hopefully we’ll have more,” says Willis. “Maybe it will eventually acquire a purpose, maybe not. I don’t know if that’s what’s important.”