The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

The Pensive Turtle
Joe Fafard

artscanada, autumn 1974
[ 1,039 words ]

When the City of Regina built Benson School out on the prairie past the Lieutenant-Governor's House, everyone called it a white elephant. I must have never asked what that meant, because I grew up vaguely conscious of a huge elephant, white, hidden, having something to do with the solid two-storey brick school three streets away from our house. Not that I expected the school to turn into an elephant one day. I wasn't raised on fairy tales. But going to school, climbing on the white ledge about eight feet above the ground and extending around the school, walking down the brown linoleum halls, looking through the mesh fence at the girls playing on the other side of the schoolgrounds — all these things had something to do with a white elephant.

It also may have something to do with why I was not surprised to see a turquoise woolly mammoth on top of the school at Pense, Saskatchewan. If Benson School could be a white elephant, there was no reason why Pense School couldn't boast a woolly mammoth. It also boasts a large, cement and ceramic turtle near the front door.

Both these animals are the creations of Joe Fafard, who lives across the street from the school. Well, they're not only his creations and that is one of the things that makes them interesting as public sculpture. Both the woolly mammoth and the turtle were made by groups of students who worked under Fafard's guidance.

The woolly mammoth is one of a number of large pieces produced by Fafard's beginning classes in sculpture at the Regina art school where he taught until this year. The idea behind them was to involve 'the people who had something to do with the place' in the decisions about what art would be set up on the campus. Until Fafard began moving the huge animals out onto the lawn in front of the Fine Arts Building and the university gallery, all the decisions on 'public' sculpture had been made by a principal's art committee. The sculpture — an eight-foot frog; a huge, reclining cow; a slightly cross-eyed, six-foot bust of the benefactor of the art gallery; a turquoise blue, binder-twine Sasquatch and the similarly constructed, twelvefoot high woolly mammoth — were an instant success with the people of Regina. The campus became a 'sort of people's park', where parents brought their children to see the menagerie and to climb around on the big green frog.

The animals were not so well received by some of Fafard's colleagues and university officials. Eventually, a decision was made to give the pieces away (except for Frog) and in the summer of 1973, Woolly Mammoth was carted off to adorn the front entrance of an apartment building. Fafard rescued her, however, and the Pense School Board offered to pay transportation and installation costs for placing her on top of Pense School. From this perch, she now raises her trunk at the rising sun and gives the kids and passing motorists unexpected pleasure.

The Pense School turtle has had an easier life than the woolly mammoth. She came into being as a result of the efforts of a group of local students. Fafard offered his services if they were interested in constructing a piece for the school. They approached the School Board and Recreation Board of Pense, received their support and the funds to cover the cost of materials, and set out to build Turtle on weekends and after school. The turtle design was meant to be a functional, playground piece, forming a hill for climbing (and such games as 'I'm the King of the Castle') and a hut underneath.

In contrast to much public sculpture in Canada, Woolly Mammoth and Turtle enjoy the full support of the public. Not only have the taxpayers of Pense paid for the pieces, they have volunteered their help and enjoy showing off the sculpture to visitors and friends.

For the pieces at the art school, Fafard asked each student to submit a maquette. They then voted for the piece that they would create as a group. Fafard submitted a maquette with the students and had only one vote. Whichever piece won was the 'master' for the project. The cost of materials had to be kept within a 'budget', which was the money collected as lab fees for the class. The pieces had to be substantial — that is constructed of solid, durable materials. Frog, for example, is an iron bar and concrete structure. The students produced ceramic disks that were then pressed into the concrete to make the glossy, mosaic finish.

For Turtle, Fafard had to forego the initial process of submitting maquettes and consequently much of the preliminary discussions and interest, which serves to iron out problems before the work properly begins, did not take place. The construction of a piece is a complex and arduous process and taxes the energy of younger students working at it on a parttime basis. The turtle was constructed in a similar fashion to Frog and is as tough a piece of playground sculpture as you might find anywhere.

The community dimension of Turtle was much more clearly defined than for Frog. The students came from the town and the farming population nearby. They produced the piece for the schoolgrounds and it had the support of the town government. Frog was, as Fafard says, 'a frog looking for a community.' The turtle was more of a community project looking for an artist — that is, a piece which needed fuller professional guidance than Fafard could give at the time.

The important thing for Fafard (and for Pense, for that matter) is that in the creation of the turtle 'sculpture became something people did rather than just an end product.' This involvement of people in the work of sculpture is something absent in most pieces mounted for public display or use. Woolly Mammoth stands on the Pense School because the people of Pense want him there; Turtle stands in the school grounds because the people of Pense helped build him. I think of all the unwanted pieces of public sculpture and I wonder if it's not because they're white elephants instead of woolly mammoths.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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