Several years ago in my former Yorkville gallery, I filled the space with an array of beautiful sculpture for a show featuring this intriguing art form. Some people who came into the show looked at the bare walls and asked, “Where’s the art?” – literally stepping around the sculpture displays looking for paintings.
Sculpture isn’t something that many of us were exposed to in our youth – us, in the “new world” of Canada. That is, unless you’re indigenous or were treated to the intricate historic sculptures of Europe, Greece, India, Asia and beyond.
What is sculpture?
Sculpture is three-dimensional art either created as a free-standing “circular” art form or reliefs carved on a solid surface.
Sculpture has evolved over centuries to modern day to include not only carving but also cast, assembled, additive and subtractive and modelled pieces of a variety of materials.
Historically and today sculpture is carved from or into stone, cast in bronze or a similar metal, includes crafted clay or ceramic models, metals, plastics, and other materials assembled into intriguing three dimensional marvels.
All sculpture is appreciated for its intricate details and or soft curves thoughtfully carved into stone, precise angles, stunning images, sometimes precarious and dynamic assembly that seems to defy gravity and so much more.
I am not an art historian, but I can tell you that sculpture has been a highly respected, universal, and durable art form since the earliest civilizations: around the world and in Canada.
Relief sculpture can be traced back at least 25,000 years to pre-historic, early civilizations who carved messages and images in stone, including ancient Egyptian and Canada’s indigenous peoples. Carving images was a means of documentation and communication.
Prominent examples include biblical scenes and images carved in marble on the facades of European churches, such as Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise of the Florence Baptistry (1425), the Parthenon frieze on the Acropolis in Greece and images carved on crypts and tombstones.
Circular or free-standing sculpture
In its earliest days, sculpture focused on necessity: fine crafted tools and implements formed from stone, and cultural and social significance: such as spiritual images and biblical scenes.
The Sphinx in Egypt, a grand sculpture, goes back to circa 2250 BC and Greek sculpture to 800 BC. It was Greek sculpture that began to capture the human body in stone and metal and influenced those that followed.
In the Middle Ages, Christianity drove the production of sculpture, with altarpieces and reliefs representing biblical scenes or as ghoulish reminders of what awaited sinners in the afterlife. Personally, I was both in awe of and shocked by the images of good and evil, heaven and hell on the façade of the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy.
The Renaissance era saw a returned to the study of the human form. During this period, artists like Donatello and Michelangelo created masterpieces that endure.
When we think of free-standing sculpture, one giant many will be familiar with is
Michelangelo’s “David” in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Standing 17 feet high and completed in 1504, 26-year-old Michelangelo carved this iconic statue with such grace and precision from a giant piece of marble. The detail in the structure, eyes and … all parts of David, are stunning,
And a reminder that this was created painstakingly by hand, and without the benefit of electric power tools and lighting.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the oldest surviving documented Canadian indigenous sculpture has been dated no earlier than 5,000 years ago. Discovered in the Queen Charlotte Islands in BC, it is an intricate bone carving now housed the ROM. Indigenous sculpture is where our history of sculpture began.
With the arrival of French settlers in Canada in the 1600’s came artisans to carve wooden sculptures primarily for boats, churches, and other prominent landmarks in the colony.
So, that very abbreviated touch of history which admittedly doesn’t include many other parts of the world, is to say that sculpture is one of the oldest forms of art and has been prominent and coveted around the world for centuries.
Please touch me!
Back to present times. And, yes, I do encourage my clients to touch certain stone sculpture to feel the curves and experience the feel of the art (but – NEVER touch a painting please!)
Sculpture is all around us. The Giant Lobster in Shediac, NB and the Giant Squid in Newfoundland are examples of assembled metal sculpture. The Samuel de Champlain carved stone sculpture outside the National Gallery in Ottawa. Terry Fox in Thunder Bay, the Big Nickel in Sudbury or the Big Toonie in Campbellford are cast sculpture examples.
Closer to home – The Irving Zucker sculpture garden at the Art Gallery of Hamilton includes an array of stunning works! Make sure you plan a visit.
But not all sculpture is of grand scale and historic or cultural significance.
An intricate or stylized soapstone carving on a table or an abstract carved stone, cast bronze or metal sculpture in your home or garden will be appreciated for generations for its craftsmanship, design and stunning presence. How light plays on the sculpture is also an important element to consider – light and shadow accentuate the form.
Through my four decades in the art business, I have been privileged to work with many talented sculptors, stand in awe of a multitude of stunning works and marvel at the creative and intricate works of a great number of pieces.
For this article, I thought I’d introduce you to three Canadian sculptors with diverse and interesting histories: a local Indigenous artist, a pioneering Canadian woman and a Ukrainian immigrant with an impressive list of prominent likeliness’s he cast in bronze during his career.
I wish I had more time and space but let this be a start of our conversation and in time I will talk about local and contemporary artists/sculptors including Patrick Bermingham, Conrad Furey and the metal and wood fabricated sculptures Tom Wilson designs and hand paints in oil.
David General: Six Nations: stone carved and cast sculpture
David General, an Oneida/Mohawk Indigenous artist and a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River is known for blending Indigenous and modernist styles and typically working in stone and sometimes bronze. David also served several years on the Six Nations Elected Council, first as a Councillor and then as Elected Chief from 2004 to 2007 and a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and since 1980 he has worked as a full-time sculptor developing a distinctive modernist style in marble and bronze.
His most recent works are typically large scale, with a 2019 commission and installation of a granite sculpture at the University of Ottawa celebrating the long and continuing history of the Anishinaabe people and the recently unveiled “Conversations and Stories” sculpture at Joseph Brant Hospital, Burlington.
David begins with an artist’s statement and sketches– the vision, theme and enduring messages the piece will invoke. Those sketches guide the making of maquettes – small 3-D models of the sculpture he creates to determine the best combination design, surface, and texture for the artwork. The maquettes lead to working with granite and/or bronze foundries to create the final sculpture.
His works are in the permanent collections of many Canadian institutions including The Royal Ontario Museum, McMichael Canadian Collection, Indian Art Centre Collection, Indian and Northern Affairs, Woodland Indian Cultural Educational Centre and others.
I’ve had the pleasure and honour of working with David for over 40 years. We carry a few rare pieces of his earlier small scale marble sculptures and represent him for commissions for his larger monumental works.
Ethel Rosenfield: stone carved sculpture
Ethel Rosenfield (1910 – 2000) was a Polish-born Canadian sculptor who immigrated to Montreal, moving to Toronto in 1978.
After enrolling in art classes in Montreal in her mid-forties and studying under prominent sculptors Filion and Archambault, Rosenfield began working primarily in limestone and marble, exploring “organic forms, abstract or schematized, the latter representing heads, female and male forms and the mother and child”.
Ethel worked with her chisels, mallets and power tools to craft imaginative and thought-provoking stone carvings that endure. Many a celebration of women.
Rosenfield co-founded the Quebec Sculptors’ Association in 1962, and her work was exhibited at the Rodin Museum, Expo 67, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and multiple Canadian universities. Her sculptures are held in permanent collections at Concordia University, the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, and the Storm-King Art Centre, NY among others.
Ethel was an inspiring force! Small in stature, a bold personality, active and lively, and creating some of the most creative expressions in stone in our time. We’re fortunate that a precious few of her collection have been released and are available to the public in our gallery.
Leo Mol: bronze sculpture
Leo Mol (2015-2009) (born Leonid Molodozhanyn) was born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine), studied at the Leningrad Academy of the Arts and eventually immigrated to Winnipeg in 1948.
Mol was known for his sculptures of the nude figure, indigenous and other prominent figures and wildlife subjects. Mol also completed more than 80 stained-glass windows in churches throughout Winnipeg early in his career, upon arriving in Canada.
He was a prolific artist and some of his most famous works include busts of three Popes which stand in museums in the Vatican.
Other important subjects who Mol sculpted include members of the Group of Seven, Winston Churchill (1966), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1966), John F. Kennedy (1969). Terry Fox (1982). On Parliament Hill in Ottawa stands his impressive over life-size standing portrait figure of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and an impressive bronze of Queen Elizabeth ll.
More than three hundred of Mol’s works are displayed in the 1.2 hectare Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. A must visit when in Winnipeg!
Beckett Gallery/Fine Art has handled the sale of numerous Mol’s rare smaller and medium scale bronze sculptures including his 1984 – “Reflection”, edition 4 of 15 in our current gallery collection.
Reach out and Touch!
If you’ve made it to the end of this article – thank you. What I initially thought would be a “little article on sculpture” couldn’t be captured in a few hundred words.
So please if you’re on Locke Street please drop in, look beyond the walls and TOUCH THE SCULPTURE!
Tom Beckett is the owner/director of Beckett Fine Art, est. 1966, 196 Locke Street South, Hamilton, ON., Canada www.BeckettFineArt.com 416-922-5582