Story and photos by Susan Quinn
The logger’s beard curls stolidly beneath a swarthy face and bowler hat made of steel; the miner’s cart melts into crooked pieces of railroad track like it has lain there for decades, an abandoned logging camp reclaimed by nature.
To one side, a lanky hiker with camera in hand comes upon the scene. Little flourishes give a visitor plenty to look at, time and again.
This was Sooke blacksmith Jake James’s vision for Port Alberni’s latest piece of public art.
Over the past few months James and Alberni Valley welder Adam Plater have turned, burned, bent and shaped that dream into reality in Plater’s Beaver Creek welding shop.
In the coming months, the piece will be installed permanently in front of Port Alberni City Hall.
“It’s looking funky; I love it,” says Gareth Flostrand from the Community Arts Council. Flostrand was one of the people on the committee that chose James to create the public art piece.
“I think it’s going to be eye-pleasing,” Flostrand said. “Kids will love it.”
James learned his craft in Braishfield, Hampshire, England. He has spent the past six years creating metalwork art in his leased forge in Metchosin.
No stranger to public art, James has two pieces installed in the Greater Victoria area, in James Bay and Sidney. His original application wowed the Alberni arts committee, Flostrand said.
James came to Port Alberni in August to search for metal at McLean Mill and the Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) building. Soupy Campbell has also given him several pieces used in the artwork.
The piece will feature steel in various stages of rust or galvanization. “I’m trying to give it that collapsed industrial look,” James explained. The entire piece will be sprayed with a clear coating, but it won’t be painted.
“I don’t want to fake it to be anything else,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of raw but it suits what we’re trying to do.”
With his public art James likes to make a statement that people can see when they take in the scene as a whole.
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In this case, the industrial “decrepitude” coupled with the potential nature tourism has to revive the region.
He also likes to reward people who take the time to examine his artwork up close, with little “gifts” like the expression on a bird’s face in a nest atop a tree, featured in one of his Victoria artworks. There are similar pieces to be included in his Port Alberni art too.
“I think there’s enough in it that everyone will get something out of it. There’s political and social commentary and it’s humourous,” he said.
James has attempted to use reclaimed pieces of Alberni Valley history in the work. For example, a swordfern sprouts from a railway switch; the miner’s cart will be perched on actual narrow gauge train tracks donated by the IHS.
James’s partnership with Plater was fortuitous: Plater had called James asking if he could take some blacksmithing classes just two weeks before James planned to visit the Alberni Valley on his first search for metal.
“I said how about I trade you,” James said. He has spent the past few months working on smaller pieces in his own forge, and teaming up with Plater at his All Terrain Welding and Ironworks shop on Dashwood Road.
“It’s allowed me to put more in the sculpture too because I haven’t had to haul large pieces of metal back and forth from Sooke,” James said.
Some of the work has been challenging, such as bending the train tracks, and squishing the cart wheels just the right way so they sit on the tracks.
Flostrand is happy that James was able to source material directly from the Alberni Valley, and use the services of a local welder too.
“By using the majority of material from our valley…it’s just that extra special touch,” she said. “This is our piece of public art. Yes, it has been made by somebody from out of town, but it’s our material. People will be able to take ownership of it.”
A group of students from Alberni Elementary School visited Plater’s shop on Wednesday to view the artwork in progress as well as to learn about metal recycling.
James is nearly finished the project, which he began in September. He needs to co-ordinate the pouring of the cement base for his work with the city’s public works department.
He estimates the sculpture will be ready to install in about a month, and Flostrand said the completed artwork should be unveiled sometime between Arts and Culture Week in mid-April and the end of June.
To follow James’s progress, check out his Facebook page: Jake James Artist Blacksmith.