An Edmonton artist has won a hotly contested $1-million commission for a large bronze sculpture of War of 1812 hero Sir Isaac Brock, and he’d like to look at the major-general’s long-interred bones to help render the most vivid likeness possible.
Danek Mozdzenski, best known nationally for his bronze of former prime minister Lester Pearson on Parliament Hill, is to be named the winner of the national competition at a media conference Tuesday at Brock University in St. Catharines. The outdoor sculpture will be unveiled next year in the Ontario city, located directly south of Toronto across Lake Ontario, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the university. Chosen by an eight-member jury, the self-taught Mozdzenski, 60, prevailed over 26 other finalists, culled from a long list of 72, to take the prize, its high dollar value a decided rarity in Canadian art circles – although, as he noted in an interview, “not especially high for highways or for hockey rinks.”
The university is aiming to have the work completed and on campus by next May. But given its scale – a solitary, leaning Brock will be positioned atop a two-tier plinth, his body standing almost 3.6-metres high – a fall, 2014, unveiling is not out of the question. As befits its university setting, Mozdzenki’s sculpture depicts Brock less as a man of action than as a reflective, almost scholarly figure, caught in seeming mid-lecture, with his left leg propped on a wooden campaign chest, his hat and cockade atop the chest. A sheathed sword and a couple of thick books complete the scene.
Money for the sculpture was put up by long-time Brock University benefactor, trustee, St. Catharines businessman and Canadian history buff David Howes. “Canadians are a wonderful people,” he said in a recent phone interview explaining why he bankrolled the art work and sat on its selection jury. “But we do not honour our heroes; it’s not in our nature.” The sculpture is an attempt to “rectify” that, even as Howes, a self-described “realist when it comes to art,” acknowledged the commission is occurring in “the area where [Brock] is already recognized. Maybe,” he said with a chuckle, “it should be erected in Edmonton.”
Indeed, the university is located about 10 kilometres west of Queenston Heights on the Niagara Escarpment where, on Oct. 13, 1812, the 43-year-old Brock was felled by a sniper’s single bullet as he led his forces in what eventually proved a successful repulsion of an invasion of Upper Canada by U.S. troops. In 1856, a 56-metre-high monument commemorating his death and the battle was erected on the heights, and his body buried at its base, alongside the tomb of his second-in-command also killed that day.
It’s Mozdzenski’s hope that Parks Canada will allow him to examine Brock’s bones, especially his skull. An assiduous researcher, he notes there are only two reliable, authenticated portraits of Brock, one done when he was 15 or 16 at his home on the island of Guernsey, the other, a profile painting by a Dutch itinerant artist in Canada dated 1808. The last is “wonderful to have,” noted Mozdzenski, “but we have no en face ... Forensic studies are very useful in police work, as you know, and they could be very useful to me to give me a likeness.”
At the same time, “I don’t know enough [about the circumstances of his burial] at this stage,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know if it’s likely or possible or impossible.”
Unsurprisingly, Mozdzenski’s planned work has come only after a series of iterations. While the request for proposals was announced in late January this year, targeted to a Mar. 1 deadline, Modzdesnki only heard about it in mid-February. “Under great duress” – his mother-in-law had recently died – he produced a large painting, 1.5 by 1.2 metres, of a sculpture featuring Brock on horseback alongside his famous Shawnee ally Tecumseh. “I wanted to show sort of the duality of Canadian reality – the native and the off-shore, the European, if you will,” he explained.
However, when told the commission had to feature Brock only, he submitted a proposal that presented Brock in a more intimate, intellectual setting that included a writing desk, bookshelf and secretary, even an astrolabe and a teacup. However, once it was decided that Brock should be twice life-size, Mozdzenski began to pare back on its constituent parts.
Even in its relatively reduced state, Mozdzenski, who completed his first commission, a bust of novelist Joseph Conrad, for an Edmonton library, hopes to have sufficient time to put some “poetry into it. I want to delight in the making of it because I want that delight to be given to the viewer. It has to contain some wonderful energies.”