Derek Heinzerling's homage to Rodin and 60s student radicalism was at the epicentre of the city’s counter culture
The Unknown Student statue
341 Bloor West, at Huron
Known for the stately homes on Palmerston and Bloor’s indie vibe, the Annex neighbourhood is also home to some of the city’s most avant-garde landmarks in the realm of art and architecture.
There’s the collection of apartment buildings off Spadina designed by Uno Prii, the sculpture memorializing Canadian poet and novelist Gwendolyn MacEwen and, further south, the hunched over bronze figure, seemingly in a yoga pose, that anchors a wayward corner of Huron and Bloor: The Unknown Student.
It’s easy to miss it in the spring and summer when it tends to be blocked by the greenery growing in the surrounding flower beds. At other times, the dark green and black tarnished bronze gets lost in front of the grey concrete facade of the 18-storey apartment building behind it.
But the sculpture hearkens back one of the more tumultuous times in Toronto’s history – the campus protests of the late 1960s against the Vietnam War and U.S. exceptionalism.
The sculpture, which was unveiled on April 4, 1969, is the brainchild of Derek Heinzerling, a 22-year-old Vietnam War resister from Garrett, Indiana. But the work itself is a creation of the Rochdale College Sculpture Shop started by Hungarian-born artist Edward Apt.
The former forestry major and “freedom fighter” of the Hungarian Revolution started the sculpture shop shortly after Rochdale opened in 1968. Heinzerling was a member.
At the time Rochdale, which was affiliated with the University of Toronto, was an experiment in co-operative student living and learning. Besides acting as a student residence for U of T, the so-called “free school” also functioned as a centre for alternative learning. At one point, some 840 student-residents lived there, but it would inevitably become a flashpoint of Toronto’s drug counter culture for authorities and city officials.
In The Life And Art Of Edward Apt, a biography researched and written by the artist’s brother, Kamill Apt, and Wolf Sullivan, Apt relates that a model was originally recruited to pose for the project. But the person in question was “unable to get over her inhibitions about being naked.”
When work on the sculpture began, Heinzerling’s design was envisioned as “an homage to Rodin with much obvious references, including texture, agony of flesh, visceral empathy, etc….”
But changes were incorporated over the four months it took to make the sculpture, which was created with donated materials. The title chosen for the sculpture evokes The Unknown Soldier, the cenotaph found in many cities to represent the horrors of war. The Unknown Student, on the other hand, is thought more as a symbol of freedom of expression and speech.
A parade was planned for the sculpture’s official unveiling on Good Friday in 1969. The program for the day lists the Rochdale Open-Hearted Marching Band as scheduled to lead a procession down Spadina with kazoos, coffee cans, baby rattles and recorders, among other instruments. Alas, the city refused to issue a permit.
The sculpture’s unveiling went ahead anyway, with a ceremony declaring Rochdale a constitutional monarchy shortly afterwards. The coronation of “King James I of Rochdale” that followed included an acceptance speech by the king, who was so high on chocolate chip “herbal” cookies that he climbed atop the sculpture.
Rochdale had reached its zenith. But financial issues associated with failed efforts to make it completely independent of U of T would lead to a mass exodus in the years that followed.
Apt would leave Rochdale, too, heading back to the West Coast in 1970 after the co-op ceased being what he termed “an island of brotherhood in the sea of rotten corruption.” (Apt would reportedly become paralyzed some years later in a car accident.)
Rochdale would close down completely in 1975, but The Unknown Student remains, gazing into its own navel – and mooning the tenants who now live in the building behind it.
Check out a video about the Unknown Student statue below:
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday or in print every Thursday.