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Newfoundland sculptor Morgan MacDonald is in the business of immortalizing heroes

Sculptor Morgan MacDonald is pictured in his bronzing foundry in St. John's, N.L. on July 9, 2018.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The Newfoundland Bronze Foundry is not listed on any of the official ghost tours that promise interactions with the province’s otherworldly, but its cavernous warehouse off a forested strip outside of town is rife with shadows that trick the eye and play with the mind.

Body parts are strewn all about inside: casts of fingers, legs and arms and a beret-covered head pile up on industrial shelves while the floor is spread with a couple dozen eerie, middle-aged faces that appear to have been frozen mid-nap, jaw lines set, face muscles slack. Peer closely at their fine detail – stubble sprouting on chins, a forehead creasing in thought – and goosebumps are immediate.

“Oh, this place is haunted,” sculptor Morgan MacDonald says, grinning.

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If it is, the spirits MacDonald is working with – and there are many these days – must be onside. Using both history and present-day communities as his muse, MacDonald, a bronze sculptor, has made it his business to immortalize heroes both past and present, sparing them any likelihood of fate as forgotten ghosts.

MacDonald, whose great grandfather fought in the First World War, plans to amass 100 facial casts of living Newfoundlanders who had relatives that fought with Britain in the war.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The increasing collection of MacDonald’s sculptures throughout Newfoundland is becoming iconic, as the hulking, realistic pieces find homes in parks, along lakesides and at war memorials. The monuments commemorate soldiers, seamen, rowers and even the province’s namesake dogs.

Although cast is a medium that is literally cold to the touch, MacDonald’s sculptures are imbued with warmth, humanity and an intimacy not normally associated with figurative public art. For this ability, which gives his sculptures magnetic quality, MacDonald is making a name for himself in the Canadian arts community.

The sculptor opened his bronze foundry outside of St. John’s a little more than a decade ago; ever since, communities from top to bottom of the economically bereft province have fundraised millions to commission him. Demand far exceeds the province’s borders: His sculptures are installed as far off as France. A new installation destined for Fort McMurray, Alta., is in the works.

The piece that most Canadians are likely to have seen though, if only from their couch cushions, is on display in Moncton. That monument, often pictured in national newsreels, was created to honour the three RCMP officers that were slain on duty in 2014.

The sculptor opened his bronze foundry outside of St. John’s a little more than a decade ago.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

In the wake of that horror, Moncton was badly in need of something to mark its trauma, but also to soften the sharp edges of its grief. MacDonald’s answer was a gape-inducing monument of three life-sized statues that are shocking in their likeness to the slain officers. The sight of the trio alongside Moncton’s Petitcodiac River walk regularly stops people in their tracks. Conversations drop as passersby silently take in the monument’s unbelievable detail, from the accuracy of the uniforms and medals to the achingly personal casts of wedding rings, paw prints and fingerprints left at the officers’ feet by those they left behind.

Discovering those details makes viewing MacDonald’s work an interactive experience, full of pleasurable payoffs for those who linger long enough to observe them. They also reveal the artist as a storyteller at heart, one with an uncanny ability to thread pain, loss and honour into everlasting bronze.

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“You tend to diminish in your own mind the importance of what you do,” MacDonald said. “I’ve always thought I was a terrible storyteller,” he said, laughing. “You start out as an artist just hoping somebody is paying attention.”

Demand far exceeds Newfoundland's borders: MacDonald's sculptures are installed as far off as France.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The emotional unveiling of his RCMP sculpture in Moncton drew thousands over a period of days.

“To see that kind of reaction … it takes you by surprise,” MacDonald said. “You realize even though the monument is just metal and bronze, it’s not just a monument. It’s part of the communal consciousness. Never in a million years had I thought it would happen that I’d play that role.”

Born in Newfoundland into a family with a long history of public service, MacDonald went to fine arts school, but switched to studying business to hone his entrepreneurial skills to make pursuing art sustainable. He went on to open a commercial foundry of his own. The business helps offset the cost of his passion projects.

These tend to involve first responders or those whose stories inform current Newfoundland or Canadian culture. Currently, a non-commissioned trio of Beothuk figures is taking shape in the back of the foundry. Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk, her aunt Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut, her husband, are central players in a 200-year-old story that ends with the demise of Beothuk people. MacDonald feels compelled to draw renewed attention to their stories.

Foundry technician Danny O'Brien works on clay models for MacDonald's project commemorating Beothuk history.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Also homeless at his foundry are a pileup of those frozen faces that look as though they are sleeping. MacDonald, whose great grandfather fought in the First World War, plans to amass 100 facial casts of living Newfoundlanders who had relatives that fought with Britain in the war. They will ultimately hang together in a giant, bronze oval designed to look like an old-time picture frame.

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“The family members here are still emotionally invested,” MacDonald said. “So how can you capture … what it means to have had a family member serve with Newfoundland?”

MacDonald is bent on finding a way and, eventually, a public home fit for the project, which costs $8,000 a face just for the bronze. With his imprint growing on Newfoundland’s sculptural landscape, MacDonald, ever humble, is confident the piece will be embraced when the time is right.

MacDonald’s sculptures are imbued with warmth, humanity and an intimacy not normally associated with figurative public art.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

“Whether you are conscious of it or not, a bronze sculpture in a public sphere communicates the value of people,” MacDonald said. “It communicates culture. And we’re changing our value system to reflect modern sensibilities.”

For MacDonald, that means creating sculptures that reflect a contemporary experience of historical events. For example, the Alberta-bound sculpture he has been working on in the wake of Fort McMurray’s devastating wildfires does not focus its lens on what was lost. Instead, it is a snapshot of how the city’s residents found their way through the disaster.

“It’s not so much about commemorating the wildfire itself. It’s the people coming together … in a time of great need,” MacDonald said. “It shows ‘This is what your community is. This is who you are.’ It is what makes you Canadian. When it comes down to it, people are usually there for one another.”

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