My sculpture commission…

Last Fall, Rumpole and I attended a presentation on “Developing a Public Art Policy” organized by our municipal leaders. The presenter was a sculptor who has, for many years, developed and installed numerous Public Art projects. He treated the assembled audience to visuals covering a range of examples of Public Art, from Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” installed in front of the Seattle Art Museum to projects installed in Scottsdale, Arizona, his own projects in Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, however he left out showing images of some local installations that have met with controversy. Rumpole and I paid rapt attention during this presentation. In its aftermath we engaged in a number of lively discussions on the subject of Public Art.

“Remember, dear, how you tried your hand at making Public Art?” he mentioned with an uncharacteristic smirk on his  usually stern visage.

“Must you bring that up, now?” I grumbled. “Why must you torture me with stuff I have done that I ‘d rather forget?”

Of course, this exchange, brought up a memory which in hindsight is full of odd twists. I am sure that my sculpture teacher back in art school 42 years ago, would wince that his careful grooming of my sculptural abilities had led to my creation of such an embarrasing work. This is the story of my “OTL Beaver”.

Twenty-seven years ago, we had just moved up north. Rumpole began practising Law, I continued to teach high school art, and Renaissance Man entered the fifth grade at school. We lived in splendid isolation on acreage in the bush, in a log house.

One day near the end of October, the vice-principal of my school, a really good egg, a man who was much involved in the community, nabbed me in the copier room after classes. “I belong to the ‘Over the Line Softball League’. We play softball in the snow all winter, and raise money for charity.” he mentioned casually. “We need a mascot for our float for the Christmas Parade. Can you help us?”

This request was a real head scratcher. Did he mean for me to devise a project for one of my unruly Grade 9 classes.  It was bit too short notice to drop what we were doing in class and go tooth and nail trying to pull this off with kids I didn’t know very well. I said this to him.

“Well, do you think you can do this at home?  We will pay you. But it has to be ready by the first week of December.” he persisted. “We want to have a bang-up float this year.”

Ever a sucker for a challenge and given my silly tendency to want to help people using whatever limited skills allotted to me, I agreed to design a 3-D mascot for the OTL League. It had to be a beaver (that Great Canadian Symbol also coincidentally co-opted by the OTL guys), funny, eight feet tall, made of cheap materials, be able to last for at least a week and be marginally weather-proof. So in consultation with the commissioner of this “chef d’oeuvre” we decided on a large papier mache beaver. It was to have a goofy expression on its face,  exaggerated front incisors, oversize feet in sneakers and a large catcher’s mitt in it’s paw toting a huge snowball. I made a number of preliminary studies on paper and the vice-principal happily picked a design he found hilarious.

Now, in our bourgeois household, over a number of years of living with Rumpole, I had chipped away at his conservative notion that a living – room was for calm pursuits of life such as reading, conversation, watching the boob-tube and listening to music. Still, I had to gently break it to him that for the next month our living and dining room was to be a construction zone. (Just as “Rumpole of the Bailey” had “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, so did my dear Rumpole have me, Stepford Wife, to determine just what all could transpire in our domestic spaces.) He was less than thrilled, groaned, ran his hand over his bald head and grumbled a “Whatever…, but you are on your own, completely, in this endeavour.”

So, off I went like an independent gal and bought the requisite lumber, chicken wire and gallon of Rhoplex. These supplies gathered, I had the smarts to construct the needed heavy base and armature of “the Beaver” in our basement. Always curious and seeking to correct my construction methods and awkward wood-working technique, Rumpole visited the construction site and made pointed comments about my ineptitude, while I  sawed, hammered and uttered colourful epiteths.

“You’ll never get that sucker to stand correctly,” he goaded.

Eager to prove him wrong, I beavered away assembling the understructure. It managed to stay upright.  The next phase of cutting out the chicken-wire and buiding the final forms was quite a challenge, and this had to be done on-site in the dining room near the French  doors.  The French doors were the only opening large enough to take out this 8 foot monstosity!

As Rumpole lounged on the sofa in the adjoining living-room and Renaissance Man reluctantly applied himself to his grade 5 homework at the dining-room table, I sweated and cursed through cutting the roll of chicken-wire on the dining room floor. The beaver began to take shape.

“Why are its feet so large?” asked Renaissance Man.

“The better to stand up with, my dear,” I replied.

Rumpole delivered critical one-liners from the safety of the sofa. His sarcastic comments about Michelangelo not having to worry about comparisons of “the Beaver” to his “David” I duly tucked into my memory bank of Rumpole insults and criticisms.

A happy family is one that shares activities and labours. So, we spent some fun times ripping newspapers into long strips with which to weave a surface of papier mache onto the Beaver. Rumpole and RM announced that they were not willing to get their hands sticky and wet, they wanted no part of the messier aspects of the next construction phase.

So enjoying the process of organizing groups, I inveigled visiting friends and neighbours into helping with the mache application. They had little choice, as there was to be no tea, coffee and goodies presented to them as a neighbourly refreshment until they had applied a sufficient amount of Rhoplexed newspaper strips to the sculpture. I invited unsuspecting teacher cohorts to a dinner party, luring them with a potential Hungarian dining experience. Unknown to them, the chief entertainment for the evening was to be direct opportunity to partake of the sticky pleasures of papier mache construction.

One clever guy, as he immersed several stips into his bucket of Rhoplex, quipped “This is way more fun than a ‘key party’ “.

“Oh, shut up!” I retorted. “You need to build up the arm with a few more layers.”

In hardly any time at all, the Beaver took satisfactory, if ghostly grey, shape. I organized a “Paint the Beaver” Saturday night soiree. Rumpole’s law partner was thrilled for a chance to paint the final pattern on the Beaver’s  tail. His wife tackled the chore of painting the Beaver’s oversize running shoes. A teacher friend, Jack, put the finishing touches of a loopy expression on the Beaver’s mug. His wife, Jane, sat nearby with Rumpole.  They suggested needed further touch-ups. They were the “quality control” team. Naturally, this group effort needed alcoholic lubrication, and we polished off several bottles of good red wine before high-fiving and congratulating each other for a job well done. I rather doubt if Michelangelo’s sculpture assistants had more fun at their final party after completion of “the David”.

Heady with pride, I told my vice-principal at school the following Monday that the Beaver was finished and he and some friends could come by the coming weekend to take it to the warehouse where the float was being readied. That week, a major snowstorm hit our region. The snow kept piling up. Getting to and from from to our place in the bush took some tricky winter driving skills.

The Beaver movers arranged to come on Friday evening.  Our road was becoming impassable due to the heavy snowfall. I waited and waited for the pick-up truck to slip-slide up our road. And waited, as the snowfall evolved to white-out condition. Rumpole went out to snow-blow our long driveway, so the truck could drive close to the house without getting stuck. I shovelled off the back deck and stairs leading up to it to give the movers clear access to the French doors  for Beaver removal. And waited some more.

Just as I was about to give up waiting, ready to get my pajamas and housecoat on, RM who was on watch for the truck called out, “Here they come!” Out we all went to greet the movers.  Three strangers piled out of the truck, drunker than lords.

“We got lost on these back roads, got stuck several times. Where’s the beaver?” the inebriated driver yelled.

Rumpole led them around to the back of the house, to the French doors. I fretted as I went back inside to supervise the Beaver removal.  There was much discussion amongst us all on how best to lift my magnum opus without damaging it.  The drunken removal-team managed to get it out through the doors, unscathed, but one guy slipped on the stairs going off the deck and tore the Beaver’s tail. Choking back an unladylike string of oscenities, I anxiously followed these lurching, inept fellows to the truck. There, they hoisted the Beaver into the truck’s box and festooned it with windings of plypropylene rope to secure it for the long drive to the warehouse. They draped it with a tarp to keep the snow off, hopped into the cab and slid back down the driveway, yelling cheery, drunken thanks and goodbyes out the window as they went.

I feared for the Beaver.  Would it arrive in one piece, to be installed on its float? Oh, well, the matter was out of my hands, Thank God!

The following Saturday, Rumpole, RM and I were lined up with a crowd on the main drag of our town to watch the Christmas Parade. We satched Santa go by, waving for all he was worth, surrounded by miserable looking freezing elves. Miss Winter, perched resplendent and blue-lipped in her white fur-coat, tiara and woolen mitts, sailed by.

Renaissance Man spotted the float with the Beaver, the OTL float. “Look, Mom! There comes your Beaver!” he yelled with enthusiasm. People gathered around us tittered, snorted and looked around for the source of this unexpected levity.

With red face (not entirely due to the extreme cold) I watched as the Beaver and its crew materialized and advanced toward us in the thickly falling snow. As it slowly floated by our viewpoint, I spotted the tear in its tail.  A bunch of happy, winterized and baseball-glove-toting guys surrounded the Beaver and manically waved at the crowd. As we watched, the Beaver slowly disappeared into the distance.

Boy, was I ever glad to see the last of it!

As a good bourgeois family, we resumed our boring quotidian lives.  The dining room reverted back to its proper use. Life went on, and the Beaver tale has taken on iconic status as a “family story”.

“Only in Canada? A pity! Eh?”

14 Responses to “My sculpture commission…”

  1. citrus Says:

    Now, that’s the best, the funniest thing that I have read in weeks. You amaze me!


  2. Cori Says:

    That sounds exactly like something I would do, no really if you knew my husband he would absolutely confirm this! I have been wanting to do a papier mache giraffe for years but have been too afraid of the whole construction thing. I did a large laundry hamper in this medium years ago but didn’t use enough salt and it molded on me before it had a chance to dry.

    Great post!

  3. suburbanlife Says:

    Roger – I am glad you got a kick out of this. G

  4. suburbanlife Says:

    Cori – for heaven’s sake, go for it! You need to remember that how a 3d thing in papier mache is only going to stand up if the basic armature and understructure are sound and strong. Also, you cannot be in any hurry with building the layers – things take time to dry, and that’s a limitation to keep in mind. If you do tackle the giraffe, then buy a big gallon of Acrylic medium and use that istead of wallpaper glue, or flour and water concoctions. What you get will be quite strong. Looking forward to your posting a picture of a herd of giraffes munching on one of your suburban garden’s trees! 🙂 And I am prepared to wait, and wait and wait… G

  5. Trish Scott Says:

    “Look, Mom! There comes your Beaver!”


    In the best “family story” tradition, it’s a long haul to the punch line but well worth the journey!

    What I really love, and have noticed before, is your obvious skill at delegation!

  6. the individual voice Says:

    That reads like a script for a Canadian sitcom. I was very worried all along whether the beaver would fit out the door and come to find it brilliantly did but the drunken mover tore off the poor tail — who cares that he slipped. I hope the tail surgery went well, for what’s a beaver without a tail?

  7. suburbanlife Says:

    Trish – maybe by writing this stuff down, i give my son, DiL and Gdaughter the chance to deep six the story if they lose steam in reading, to put it aside and pick it up at will, otherwise my wordyness in a telling would drive away their companionship- and i would not have to put up with eye-rolling, yawning and sleeping listeners. A win-win, I figure. G

  8. suburbanlife Says:

    tiv – some twenty or so years ago some friends commented that our tribe were like the characters of the sitcom, Soap. I really don’t like to think this is the case, as we are much more normal (I hope!) I mean, my beaver without the tail would have been like “the David” without… his sling? G

  9. ybonesy Says:

    Such a great story, G., and I loved your subtle play with words (beaver tale, beavered away). I wonder if that beaver, if has survived these years, might be worth something as a wonderful piece of folk art on Antiques Roadshow. You know how they always say the item is worth more when there’s a story attached to it!

  10. suburbanlife Says:

    ybonesy – God! I hope the beaver has sunk into well deserved oblivion, it was not one of my favourite “art” productions. And besides which the story is often more memorable than the “thing” on which it is based. Thanks for your comment and your encouragement. G

  11. maryt Says:

    Thanks G, for asking the question and visiting the answer I came up with…I really learned something

  12. Deborah Barlow Says:

    Another chapter from your illustrious past. Thanks for this tale in all its self effacing humor.

  13. suburbanlife Says:

    Maryt – your posing examples of what may be considered bad art, sure made me think. So thank you for that; I too am learning. G

  14. suburbanlife Says:

    Deborah – it is hardly self-effacing, that beaver was an absolute atrocity, and I have no illusions about its aesthetic worthiness. But it was a fun project. G

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