The Artistry of Manhole Covers

Inspiration Is Where You Find It by Bruce Deachman

 © 2001 Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen

© 2001 Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen

As an artist,you never know where or when inspiration is going to jump up and bite you. Or what strange form it will take when it does.

Holidaying with her husband, Michael Sutton, in Scotland in the fall of 1999, Louise Levergneux looked down one day at a manhole cover and said to herself. "This is neat." She took a photograph of that manhole cover.

She may not have known it right then, but she'd just been bitten.

"It was very different from the ones at home," recalls the 46-year old Ottawa artist of that first encounter, "which you sometimes look at. but most of the time ignore.

'After that, I started looking down quite a bit, instead of at all the beautiful monuments and castles and everything else. I just started a collection, not knowing what I would do with them."

Returning to her home in Ottawa, she says, she began to really look at what she was doing. A weekend trip to Toronto followed, where she photographed more manhole covers.

"The whole thing started to go on and on and on, an obsession about taking photographs of each manhole that I saw or stepped on. And the more I do it, the more I find them interesting."

Levergneux recently turned her obsession into (she hopes) popular art, issuing sets of coaster-sized prints, which she

has packaged and is selling through a number of retail outlets, including Nicholas Hoare and Collected Works bookstores and Calligrammes. 

As with any artistic endeavour, though, the inspiration is usually far outweighed by the perspiration, and getting the sets, titled City Shields, from their initial idea to the final incarnation was a long process of trial and error.

..Michael and I were in a bar one night,” recalls Levergneux, "when we thought of coasters." 

Coasters, it turned out, were prohibitively expensive to produce. And while smaller versions, similar to children’s POG’s proved popular with her friends, they were too small she says, to capture the details in the photos.

Ultimately, it was the size of the container that dictated their final look. Months of shopping around and searching for an ideal package for the prints ironically ended at her own home, when she found herself staring one day at a plastic zip-drive jewel case.

"It was perfect," she says. “When I printed them out for that size, you could see all the details. The cases didn’t cost too much and were presentable.”

The project was also away for her to getaway from more traditional artistic installations, a format she was finding increasingly physically inaccessible to the public. To that end, she has started out by producing 100 copies of each of seven sets, with each one consisting of 18 images and selling for $25.

"In the'6os," she says, "when artists' books started, the art was cheap and was able to be disseminated to the public to the point where it didn’t become such a special object that it had to be in a museum.

"I'm trying to push that with this project. I wanted to make the art more approachable."

So far, the complete set consists of seven volumes. She's compiled one Scotland series, three Ottawa ones, two from Hull, and one from Toronto. She also has enough work to put together a pair of Washington, D.C. series, and has started shooting in Maine, Chicago and Montréal.

And she freely admits that the history and function of manhole covers don’t interest her at all. "Just the look of them," she says. "The design, some of the colours."

She also admits to having an obsession with collecting, which is one of

the ways that the manhole covers fit into her life. “I tried collecting pop-up books,” she says, “but never had enough shelves for them all, so I sold my collection.” She’s also had a large collection of paper dolls.

“But nothing interested me enough to make me keep the collection I started,” she adds. “I’d start collecting stamps, say, but then I’d think of all the ones that came before, all the ones I’d missed that would be interesting. It wasn’t fun for me.

“So I would always give it away to somebody. ‘Oh, you collect stamps. Well here’s what I’ve done.’”

The manhole covers project, she adds, answers more than just her obsession with collecting. It helps her fulfil her artistic vision, and also works on the same level that things like postcards and seashells do for other adventurers.

“Michael and I travel a lot,” she explains, “and you always want to bring something back. To me, these are my souvenirs.”