By Jessica Lovell
What might Col. John McCrae have looked like in the moment after he finished writing his famous poem In Flanders Fields? This is the question that artist Ruth Abernethy has wrestled with as she has worked to create a sculptural likeness of McCrae that will be used to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the writing of the poem.
“There’s a certain solemnity to the McCrae portrait that I hope to do justice to,” said Abernethy.
Abernethy, who has her home and studio in Wellesley, Ont., was commissioned to do the portrait by the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, which plans to install the statue at the artillery monument in Ottawa to mark the milestone anniversary of the poem in 2015.
But Guelph will also be getting a copy of the statue.
“We’ve got confirmation from the city that they’ll accept the statue,” said Lt. Col. Mike McKay, who is heading up the plans for the statues.
“It’s going to go in front of the museum,” he said.
The statue is to be incorporated into the Guelph Civic Museum landscaping work, which if approved will begin in 2014. As in Ottawa, the Guelph statue is to be unveiled in 2015 as part of the local commemoration of the poem’s anniversary.
Officially, fundraising for the Ottawa statue is to begin nationally this month, although some money has already been raised, said McKay.“All in, we’re probably looking at $140,000 raised to date,” said McKay of Ottawa’s fundraising efforts.
Locally, fundraising will officially start once a signed agreement between the city and the Royal Regiment is in place, he said.
In the meantime, work on the statue is well underway.
“The statue’s going to be to acknowledge the conditions he wrote the poem in,” said McKay. “He will have written and signed the poem and is just taking a break.”
Abernethy has already created one maquette – a scaled-down version of the statue – which has been used to create brochures for fundraising. But further details, including his medical bag and some of his clothing, are being refined to ensure historical accuracy, said McKay.
Abernethy agrees that the piece has to be historically accurate, and it’s important that the features create a good likeness of McCrae, but it’s even more important that she capture the right emotion, she said.
“The character of my subject will always matter more than the details of the rendering,” she said.
Abernethy has created numerous public portraits, including a statue of Oscar Peterson – also in Ottawa – and one of Glen Gould, located in Toronto.
But while those statues were similar in that they were life-size bronze portraits of well-known figures, the sentiment involved is very different, she said.
“The emotional will dictate the physical every time,” said Abernethy.
With Peterson and Gould, both entertainers, the emotion is more lighthearted, and the statues – both incorporating benches – facilitate interaction from members of the public, who will often sit with them and pose for photos, she said.
With McCrae, she expects the public interaction to be more akin to quiet reverence.
The moment she is trying to capture sees McCrae in his military dress, but with his medical bag close at hand, alluding to his duel role as both a military man and a doctor.
The poem is on his knee, and in the finished statue Abernethy intends that people will be able to read it.
“It’s there, it’s complete and he has actually just taken a breath and looked up; that’s the moment,” she said.
He is sitting on a broken trunk in a line of young trees that would have been near the battlefield. In Ottawa, the backdrop for the sculpture will be some real trees in the landscape, said Abernethy. She is not sure yet how the backdrop will look in Guelph.
The bronze pile of turf that she created as part of the maquette will not be there in the full-size sculpture, as it will sit instead on real turf, she said.
Abernethy is still working on the fine details, but once the design has been approved she will start work on a larger-than-life styrene version that will be used to cast the statue.
The size has to be larger than life for a few reasons. The larger size is partly to do justice to McCrae’s legacy, but it is also because people appear smaller when sculpted, Abernethy said.
As well, there is some shrinking that will inevitably happen when the molten metal cools.
Ultimately, she wants it to be big enough for the public to connect with the piece.
“I want eye-to-eye; I want a moment with John McCrae,” she said.
She’s pleased that the sculpture will be replicated for both Guelph and Ottawa – a unique occurrence for one of her works – because it means that more people will get to see it.
Public art pieces such as this one are what people see when they travel, said Abernethy. “It represents what cultures care about,” she said.
While all art is meant to be shared, it’s even more so with a statue such as this, said Abernethy, noting that she looks forward to the time when the finished piece is ready to be given to the public and to seeing the reaction and interaction that follows.
“They become public property in every sense of the word,” she said.
By Jessica Lovell