GORDON KENNEDY’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Published in the Victoria Standard – Vol. 3 No. 5 – August 19 to September 1, 2013
Gordon Kennedy is putting the final touches on the largest piece of artwork he has ever created. This sculpture, which he refers to by its working title, “the Coke Ovens piece“, is a massive steel structure over thirty feet high. Gordon tends to think of himself as a builder rather than a sculptor as his artwork is primarily made from steel. Sculpting to Gordon means ‘taking away’. That’s not his kind of art.
Gordon has an extraordinary artistic talent. Kennedy studied at the Vancouver Art School (now Emily Carr Art School) in British Columbia. He was a painter for the first twenty years of his career. He and his wife Carol moved from Toronto to the North Shore over thirty years ago where they raised their two sons, Jamie and Geordie. They built a flourishing art studio on the Cabot Trail catering primarily to tourists who come to Cape Breton. Carol, a well-known and widely respected photographer, died last summer.
Some of Gordon’s interest in working with steel can be seen in cast off bits of his neighbours refurbished crab traps. Sea steel he calls it because of the beautiful rust that develops after the metal has been in the ocean. Gordon prefers to make smaller decorative pieces that take only a few days. They’re fun and creative and keep his interest high.
Some of Kennedy’s more recent larger creations were showcased at an Exhibition at Cape Breton University Art Gallery last fall. The Coke Ovens piece is something very new for Gordon. The design process didn’t take all that long. But the building of it has taken six months of steady hard work.
As the tar ponds rehabilitation project in Sydney was nearing completion, the Province undertook to build a park on the reclaimed land, a monument to the steel industry that was once the heart of Sydney. A competition was held to choose suitable artwork to be permanently displayed in the park, and an RFP was circulated. Kennedy submitted a proposal. Given his unique talent and wide spread reputation, Gordon was one of several artists chosen to create a piece for the new Open Hearth Park. The name for the park was the result of a contest amongst the children of Sydney area schools. The Grade Six class at MacDonald Elementary School in Dominion came up with the winning entry. The park is built on eighty acres of reclaimed land and will eventually include walking trails, an amphitheatre, a dog park, sports fields, playgrounds, and a skating area.
When Gordon’s proposal was accepted in March of this year, he considered contracting the project out because of the enormous size of the sculpture. His small studio couldn’t accommodate such a large piece. Gordon and his two sons were still struggling with the loss of Carol. Jamie and Geordie are both accomplished metal workers, and since Carol had been part of the design process the three men decided to take on the challenge themselves, the sons working alongside the father. Their decision proved out giving them a way to work through their loss. The Coke Ovens sculpture became, in a way, a tribute to the woman they all loved so much. A year after Carol’s death, almost to the day, the sculpture is near completion. Gordon says he is proof that a broken heart won’t kill you because he’s still here.
Gordon describes his sculpture in this way. There are four figures each facing a cardinal point on the compass to recognize that people who worked at the coke ovens came from all over the world to build a new life in Sydney. The figures are connected to evoke a sense of community and cooperation which has always been part of Cape Breton life. The figures are abstract but have distinct feminine elements to represent the vast contribution from women who worked in the steel plants especially during World War II. There is an obvious transition from rough to smooth to portray the process of transforming raw materials into finished products. The sculpture is built with Cor-ten (rusting) steel that will be left to achieve its beautiful warm finish. This natural oxidation gives the sculpture a timeless quality and renders it basically maintenance free.
Structural engineer Steven Hooper of Sydney designed the framework for “the Coke Ovens” sculpture and welder Monty Nicholson of Baddeck constructed the skeleton that supports the finished piece. The completed sculpture weighs six and a half tons. It will be transported to the park on a flatbed transport and will be lifted into place by crane. A cement foundation is being prepared where the sculpture will be permanently mounted.
The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is planning a Gala Opening on Labour Day Weekend when the park will be opened to the public. Gordon Kennedy’s work will be unveiled, along with other artwork that has been created specifically for the new park.
Now that this enormous project is nearing completion, Gordon feels a sense of relief. He says he’s very happy to have built the piece himself but is looking forward to being back in his shop working on smaller simpler projects again, the fast and fun pieces that he enjoys, and to become creative once more.