Portuguese Joe Silvey’s historic journey from the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean to British Columbia’s West Coast has lately taken an inland segue to Central Alberta.
The Vancouver-area saloon keeper, whaler and pioneer fisherman from the 1860s is being memorialized in a five-metre bronze sculpture, along with both his Coastal Salish wives.
The intricately detailed Shore to Shore work is expected to be installed this fall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. It was created by Portuguese Joe’s great-great-grandson, the artist Luke Marston, and therefore has personal meaning for the Vancouver Island sculptor.
But Marston was assisted in the creation process by Central Alberta foundry operator Stephen Harman. The Red Deer County resident has been casting the large pieces of the sculpture for the past 1.5 years.
“As far as intricacy goes, it’s the most intricate piece we’ve done,” said Harman — and that’s saying something.
The foundry operator and sculptor, who relocated his Harman Sculpture Foundry Ltd. to the C&E Trail from the Vancouver area in 2008, has worked on many detailed, sizable and noteworthy sculptures over the years. These include Douglas Coupland’s multi-figured statue of Terry Fox, which is now installed in Vancouver.
Harman’s knowledge of native B.C. art and motifs made him a natural choice for the job, said Marston. “He’s familiar with northwest coast stuff and has a huge understanding of First Nations art.”
Harman and his late father John Harman, who started up the foundry on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, have worked on bronze casting for Haida artists Bill Reid, Robert Davidson and Jim Hart.
Although Stephen Harman left B.C. to be closer to his wife’s Central Alberta family and for lifestyle reasons, he remembers that sharp, graphic lines are integral to coastal First Nations art.
For this reason, he said many months were spent refining the details in Marston’s designs before the pieces were cast in bronze.
“It’s just like a language, like hieroglyphics,” said Harman, who spent a good part of his time, while working on the sculpture, also recovering from a broken leg caused by a mishap with a previous project.
Many exacting shapes decorate the three supports of Marston’s 4.25-metre teepee-like structure, which was designed to frame the three figures in the piece. The Ladysmith, B.C.-based artist said this eagle-topped frame actually symbolizes a fishing lure used to draw salmon closer to the water’s surface so the fish could be speared.
When fully assembled, the monumental work will pay homage to Marston’s ancestors, as well as the West Coast’s multi-ethnic history.
The sculpture will feature three 1.5-metre-tall stylized figures: Portuguese Joe will be shown holding a whaling spear; his first wife, Khaltinaht (who died young of tuberculosis) and his second wife (Marston’s great-great-grandmother) Kwatleemaat, will be depicted wearing woven blankets and traditional cedar bark and shell headdresses. The two women will also hold tools for weaving and repairing fishing nets.
Since the project has taken five years of Marston’s life to plan and execute, “it’ll be pretty amazing once it’s done,” said the 37-year-old artist, who can barely imagine finishing the work that’s kept him in Central Alberta for the past week. “It’ll be nice to complete the story,” he added, “but the journey’s been pretty good, too. …”
Marston is pleased by the unexpectedly close relationships that have emerged with the Portuguese and First Nations communities, and other supporters of the project.
The sculpture of Portuguese Joe started out as Marston’s mother’s idea, but eventually became a family affair. Marston noted his father and brother helped with the original cedar carvings, while his mom and sisters sit on a non-profit foundation formed to raise the $700,000 needed for the sculpture’s costs. The artist contributed $100,000 of his own money, attained government grants, public donations and donations in kind, especially from the Portuguese-Canadian and Azores communities. (The latter gave stone for the statue’s base, which was carved to resemble ocean waves.)
Marston said about $100,000 still needs to be raised. (Various fundraising options can be viewed at www.shoretoshore.ca.)
Silvey is known on the West Coast as a colourful historic character, a pioneering seine (dragnet) fisher, and ambassador who bridged two cultures. While the whaler from the Azores Islands fathered 11 children with two Salish wives and left many descendants, his importance to B.C.’s history reaches far beyond his own family.
In The Remarkable Story of Portuguese Joe Silvey, a biography by Jean Barman, he’s recalled as a Renaissance man of his generation. His friends included saloon keeper Gassy Jack Deighton for whom Vancouver’s Gastown is named, and his prestigious grandfather-in-law Chief Kiapilano of the Capilano Nation.
A plaque explaining Silvey’s history will be attached to the Shore to Shore sculpture, which will be installed on Brockton Point in the northeast of Stanley Park, close to where Silvey and his family once lived.
But the project will not end there.
A feature-length documentary of the sculpture, as well as Portuguese Joe’s story, is being made by Gumboot Productions. Journalist Suzanne Fournier is also writing a book about Marston’s sculpture and the artist’s trip to his great-great-grandfather’s homeland of Pico Island in the Portuguese Azores.