A Hardy Town

I would like to thank everyone for coming out to the unveiling of our new sculpture ‘A Hardy Town’ on Friday. Paul and I were moved by the attendance and support. I’ve had a few people ask if I have a copy of the words I put together for the unveiling, so I thought I would post them here. It feels strange that people may want to read my words, but the thoughts are sincere and if it helps someone understand the piece, or public art in general, then I’m willing to put this out there.

A Hardy Town • Unveiling Words
June 1st, 2018 • Fernie, BC.

I hope, this is not just a sculpture… that It’s more than a showcase of ironwork or stone-cutting… that’s it’s more than a fancy bench or a giant paperweight. More than all those things, I want it to be a mirror. A good mirror should reflect the viewer back at themselves, and my dream is that this piece of public art is a public mirror for Fernie.

When you look at it, take a minute or a day or a year to evaluate what feelings it brings out in you, and then talk to your neighbour about them. Do you see good things about your community? Do you see missing things? Is it discomforting? Does it bring you joy?

All public art is designed to create the kind of discussions that help us define our community more clearly. It is designed to help us figure out who we are by stirring up emotions and refining our idea of our identity as a town. Think of it as a large conversation-starter at the centre table of our ongoing community banquet. It may not appeal to you visually, but it’s not designed to be liked, it’s design to help you find out more about the person sitting next to you at that table.

In 1908, the city of Fernie burned to the ground in 90 minutes. 10 people lost their lives that day and nearly every building was levelled. Designing a piece of art that commemorates a tragic event so long ago has many challenges. When we started looking at historical photos of the aftermath, the most visually striking images were the ghostly brick facades with their empty window frames. The buildings, hollowed out by the fire, took on new personalities as they were transformed by flame. We used those facades as a stark acknowledgement of the power of fire, and as we were reminded last summer, it’s a power that is just as real today as it was 110 years ago. The curving plumes allude to the speed at which it all happened and create a visual dance that changes as you move around the piece.

The most emotionally striking thing about those images, were the cutlines: every photo we looked at had a caption that read “…The People of Fernie are a determined community, and vow to rebuild…” and rebuild they did. The city was largely rebuilt by 1912, and as part of the legacy of the fire, our brick and mortar downtown core now provides us with a unique and admired business & cultural centre.

We didn’t feel, however, that leaving the viewer stuck in the middle of the fire was appropriate. These stones, strategically placed for sitting and viewing, are an important part of the piece: They symbolize the rebuilding. As you sit, they tell the real story of the human connection to the event–the lives affected–and now provide a spot to rest or ruminate. You, the people, complete the symbolism of the Great Fire of 1908: The story of a hardy people from a hardy town.

A project like this does not get from idea to installation without involving a significant number of people. Without those who wrote the grant that provided the bulk of the funding, those who submitted their own ideas, and those who sat on a selection committee, this project would not have gotten out of the gate.

To those at the City of Fernie, the Mayor & councillors, city staff and city workers who managed the project from the side of their desks with diligence when Lloyd was not longer able to do so, you all made sure his vision kept moving forward.

The staff at Reimer & Co. Blacksmiths provided insight, technical knowledge, and muscle on many long, hot days bending 5” pipe; you’re a rare and talented lot, thanks for welcoming this softened printmaker into your fiery crucible for a few few weeks.

I’d specifically like to thank Paul Reimer, my ongoing partner in large-scale art. We’ve worked on many projects together over 17 years and each one is new and challenging. Through each one my respect for Paul and his gift grows. This project became my baby because it was for my town, but while he allowed me the latitude I needed to find a vision for it, he was always there as an affirming voice, or helpful problem solver, or supportive friend. There would be no sculpture without you, Paul.

And Finally, I have to thank this community; to the people I see daily on the street, who asked how the project was progressing, who voiced their excitement, and who balanced questions and conversations when they arose. Also, to those who grew up here, who’s families trace their roots in this valley back to the days of the fire, who persevered and rebuilt and all these years later provide a welcoming place for many young families and new residents from all over the world… this piece is ultimately for all of you. You’ve allowed Fernie to grow and embraced many changes over the years, you’ve saved it from many fires, and that willingness has given Fernie a new life that is enviable for any mountain town.

It is an emotional journey, as well as a real honour, to be asked to build a large piece of art for the place you live. Fernie has been very good to our family; providing many opportunities to practice the work of creating, but I feel this project is the single most significant blessing we’ve had from you, our community.

In return, we hope that this mirror, this sculpture, is a gift to all of you too. All of us have learned a lot about how (and how not to) get a public art project from concept to completion. My hope is that this unveiling marks the beginning of a trend that contributes to the beauty, resiliency, and sustainability of Fernie. Ultimately this piece of art is a public reminder that we have faced adversity and have emerged a better community on the other side. In a town rich in pride and rich in history, there will always be issues that we have to face, but together we are a hardy people, and this is A Hardy Town.

Thank you.

Michael Hepher

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Below is a gallery of the ‘making of’ the sculpture. Thanks again to Paul Reimer of Reimer & Co. Artist Blacksmiths for providing workspace, staff, wisdom and guidance. Also a thank you to Lee, Alec, Derek, Rohan & Aaron for your diligent work on the piece.

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