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Photo by Mariah Wilson

Decades-old “Leon the Frog” poem restored at the University of Calgary

By Scott Strasser, April 18 2017 —

After being accidentally painted over last month, the University of Calgary’s favourite amphibian is once again free to hop up the stairs in the Social Sciences tower.

On April 13, more than 30 U of C students, alumni, staff and faculty participated in the “Leon the Frog” restoration project.

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U of C alumnus Ian Kinney led the restoration. // Photo by Mariah Wilson

“Leon the Frog” is a poem written on the steps leading up the 13 floors of the main stairwell in the Social Sciences tower. First written in 1974, the pun-filled poem recounts a frog named Leon’s journey towards the “light at the top of the stairs.” Along the way, he encounters each department and discipline in the social sciences.

In a blitz to remove graffiti, the poem was inadvertently painted over on March 31 by contractors hired by the U of C.

The poem’s erasure caused outcry from many members of the campus community. U of C alumnus Ian Kinney and the Faculty of Arts planned the restoration project to bring Leon back to life. Kinney had previously restored the then-fading poem in 2007 alongside then-U of C student Teale Phelps Bondaroff.

According to the Faculty of Arts, so many people signed up for the restoration project that the faculty had to stop accepting volunteers.

Kinney, who led the restoration project, said he was pleased with the turnout.

“Not everyone showed up first thing in the morning, but throughout the day people were able to show up when they were able to,” he said.

In order to restore the poem, volunteers transcribed archived versions of Leon the Frog published in the Gauntlet in 1979, 1999 and 2009. Because of some outdated references, volunteers were allowed to rewrite and reinterpret the stanzas as they wished.

“My understanding was that this was not only a restorative and archival project but also a creative and translative process,” Kinney said.

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A six-by-eight foot mural complements the poem. // Photo by Mariah Wilson

The revamped work also includes a plaque recognizing the poem and a six-by-eight foot mural located on the wall between the basement and the first floor. Master of Fine Arts student Avril Lopes and U of C alumnus Derek Beaulieu co-created the mural.

“[‘Leon the Frog’] was created by students, who took time in the 1970s to create this guerilla poem that has turned into a 13-storey installation piece — a 13-storey piece of artwork,” Beaulieu said. “It’s gotta be one of the tallest poems in Canada. To have that be something that was just created by students in a guerilla moment — I think it’s important to restore and keep it an active part of how we understand the U of C and allow for student intervention. This is how art happens.”

Kinney said the mural and plaque will give the poem more legitimacy and ensure it’s not mistaken as graffiti again.

“Before it just looked like graffiti or guerilla art, which is why the contractors [painted over it],” Kinney said. “Now that the mural is up and we have a plaque in recognition of it, it’s far more legitimized and part of the building now.”

U of C exchange student Shantini Karshnen participated in the restoration effort. She said she was disappointed when she learned the poem had been erased.

“When I learned it was something from the 1970s, that sparked my interest,” Karshnen said. “I thought coming here to restore Leon the Frog would be something that future generations of U of C students could look at and realize was something important and makes the U of C what it is.”

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