Today as I was listening to my favorite pop rock station, I was surprised to hear a country song fill the airwaves. I’m not a big country fan and if you are, please don’t feel offended. But this country song kind of intrigued me. It was called “Humble and Kind”, by Tim McGraw. The song speaks to many of the things that I value in my life. One line that brought back a rush of memories was, “help the next one in line and always stay humble and kind.”
It reminded me of a life changing moment from when I was about six years old. My family had just moved from Calgary to the tiny hamlet of Crawford Bay, BC. It was quite a distance between Crawford Bay and our nearest relatives and I was really feeling the loneliness of being separated from grandparents and aunts and uncles. As we got to know an older couple in our church, I went up to them one day and asked, “Can I adopt you to be my grandma and grandpa?” I really didn’t understand how audacious this question was, but fortunately they were quite humble and kind people and readily agreed. My new grandparents were Don and Ida Caston and I was immediately accepted into their family. Their acceptance was so complete that whenever I was over at Grandma and Grandpa’s I was even expected to wash dishes and help with chores around their small farm.
And it is grandpa that this Tim McGraw song reminds me of. Tim could have written it just for him. Grandpa Caston was a small man; quiet, gentle, humble and kind. But inside, there was an incredible strength of character and integrity. He always took care of others before he took care of himself. As I grew up watching this I didn’t know how much it was going to impact me until later in my life. One of Grandpa’s special talents was that he could fix anything. He was one of the handiest guys I have ever known. He was always ready to help others with anything that needed to be fixed. If he heard about someone having a problem with something he would try to fix it for them – without them ever knowing who had fixed it. I knew that he was doing this, but it wasn’t until his funeral that I found out the extent of his anonymous good deeds. After the ceremony there was an open mic time when people were invited to share stories of my Grandpa. This short story sharing time went on for nearly 2 hours. Person after person came up and told stories of times that my Grandpa had helped them out and the most intriguing thing was that many of these people didn’t know who had helped them until years, sometimes decades, later. In fact, many people at his funeral only realized who had helped them, as people were telling their own stories! It was like there were light bulbs going off all over the room. It started with a person talking about how they had mentioned to Don that their car wasn’t running properly. The next time he drove the car, it ran perfectly. It took the guy years to find out that Don had slipped over to their house when they weren’t home, fixed the problem and quietly went on with his day. Another time Grandpa had heard that somebody’s furnace wasn’t working. Once again he went over to their house when they were at work, fixed the furnace and never told a soul. Those were the days when people didn’t lock the doors! In this case for good reason! The one that really took the cake was the time that the boyfriend of a young mother in our community left her, just before winter. As he was usually the guy who got the firewood for their winter heating, this now newly single young mother didn’t have any firewood for the winter. My Grandpa called five or six people together (I was one of them) and on a day when she was not home, all of us filled her woodshed with more than enough wood for the entire winter. It took us a full eight hours. Grandma came over at lunchtime with sandwiches and ice tea for everyone. Imagine this single mom’s surprise coming home to that! Grandpa was a living, breathing example of it being more blessed to give than to receive and not letting the right-hand know what the left hand is doing. For me this was a life-changing, perspective shaping culture, first to watch, and as I got older, to become a part of. I still try to live the “others before self” approach.
Whenever I create public art I try to bring this same philosophy into the process. How can I create a piece of art that will be a blessing to people’s lives? How can I make this art benefit people in their every day experience? How can I give people something through this artwork that will be truly meaningful to them. Can this piece of art encourage, challenge or uplift people as they walk past it on the street? If this is accomplished, then this public artwork can be one of the building blocks of the community. Art can be a visual reminder of how we need to live in common unity. And like Grandpa’s secret acts of kindness, the public artist is often completely unknown to 99% of the people who look at their work. Only people who are really into art will take the time to figure out who the artist is that created that piece. But you know, after watching how my Grandpa had enriched the lives of people around him without them knowing who was doing it, I’m just fine with that!
As some of you may know I’ve just returned from quick trip to our nations capital. It’s always interesting and exciting to visit a place where the most important decisions for our country are made, but the story of why I was on this trip actually started with a series of contemplative thoughts way back in 2009.
It was the morning of Remembrance Day 2009–I was listening to CBC radio as I was driving and the news that day was about the war in Afghanistan. Hard questions were being asked about what we had accomplished during our time in that war-torn country. The thought hit me that our intentions as a nation in Afghanistan were completely consistent with every conflict in the world that we have been involved with in the last century. By and large, Canada has not gone to war for financial gain, for the addition of territory or for military prestige. We have become involved in conflicts around the world for one purpose only: to cultivate long-term peace.
If Canada has used our military outside of our borders, it has been specifically for this purpose. Contrast that with other military actions by other nations throughout history, and I can truly say that we have an exceptional track record considering the blood-soaked history of mankind.
As an artist, my thoughts invariably veered towards how the concept of peace could be artistically represented in sculpture. The word ‘cultivation’, which led me to the image of a plough, was a natural association. The age-old metaphor, rich with symbolism, of the sword being hammered into the ploughshare was a logical next-step.
As a blacksmith, this image is particularly significant to me because forging a sword into a plough would have been a very challenging dilemma for the average farmer in ancient times. For much of human history, quality steel was extremely rare. A farmer would have been extremely happy to have a good quality steel plough with which to till hard soil to grow food for his family. When war broke out, the Farmer would have had to forge his farm tools into weapons. Changing this plough into a sword would have truly been a life or death decision on many levels: not only was he going to war in which he could die, but he also was taking the most important tool for growing food for his family and turning it into a weapon. Each of these decisions put the farmer and all of his family at risk. If the sword was lost or broken during the battle, the very material that was needed to provide life would have been taken away.
In times of peace the opposite was true. The swords would be brought to the blacksmith who would feverishly transform these weapons of death back into implements of life. Food could be grown, life could be sustained and the family was no longer in jeopardy.
Essentially this is what Canada has attempted to do over the past century. Our goal has been to transform battlefields back into farm fields. Places where once, battles raged have been returned to places where life-sustaining food is grown. The concept of artistically representing this idea is not a new one. My personal favourite is a sculpture that is located in Washington DC by artist Esther Augsburger. In this example 3000 guns surrendered in a gun amnesty were welded together to create massive plough.
Taking this concept a bit farther, my thought was to make a ploughshare out of a single, massive cannon – a challenge to forge no doubt. The only place to get a gun of that size is from the military. That morning, after the Remembrance Day ceremony was finished, I asked my Member of Parliament Jim Abbott if he could look into acquiring a tank or artillery barrel for the purpose of a sculpture. Jim was immediately taken with the concept and spoke to the Minister of Defence that week. Canada’s Minister of Defence also was very supportive of the concept of the sculpture. He immediately agreed to help acquire the military equipment needed for the sculpture. After a fairly complicated process, we were able to lay our hands on a 105mm Howitzer barrel that was used by peacekeepers in Bosnia and by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. This gun barrel represents the cornerstone of our sculpture project.
I then approached my artist friend and collaborator Michael Hepher about working on the project. Together we developed the concept further to expand the symbolism, including two Canadian bison pulling our gun barrel/plough. The bison were to represent the strength and determination that we as a nation have put into our task of cultivating peace in the world. To raise support for the sculpture, and test proof of concept, we created a maquette (a scale version of the large sculpture). The maquette alone took hundreds of hours and hundreds of hand-forged pieces to put together.
With the help of Jim Abbott we were able to fly our maquette to Ottawa to present the concept in the inner lobby of the House of Commons in November 2010. The sculpture received overwhelming support from many members of parliament and excitement from all political parties. The question then became how do we fund, and where do we put the sculpture? Unfortunately the answer for these questions has not been an easy one to find.
The sculpture continues to receive overwhelming support whenever anyone sees the concept. Being a sculpture of national significance our first choice would be to have it placed in the nation’s capital. Unfortunately this is proving to be a more complicated task than we had imagined. Five years later we are still looking for a potential home for the finished piece. During that time, our maquette remained on display in the offices of several MPs from a variety of parties.
This saga brings me to my trip to Ottawa this past week. I had some very positive and encouraging meetings on the topic of location with different groups in Ottawa. Michael, myself, and the team that surrounds this project are going to continue to explore all the options for a suitable location for this sculpture. We continue to explore a number of fund-raising avenues for a sculpture of this size, and options for final venue of the finished piece. If you’d be interested in supporting this sculpture logistically or financially, please contact myself or Michael Hepher to let us know how you’d like to be involved.
[Aside] On my way home from my meetings in Ottawa, the model of the sculpture was lost by Air Canada in the Pearson international Airport. This situation is the worst nightmare of any artist: to lose a one-of-a-kind piece of art in transit. Frankly, the Air Canada system for finding lost baggage leaves a lot to be desired. It’s been six days now that the sculpture has been missing. If anyone out there knows of anyone that can help find lost sculptures in Canada’s largest airport please let me know!