The pandemic sent Nickie Lewis into the forest near her house in Burnaby, B.C. with some twine, clippers and an idea. She had always wanted to make sculptures, maybe out of wire. But then she discovered works she loved made from willow branches and reeds - on Pinterest. “I’m a super Pinterester,” she says. With free time on her hands last summer because of COVID-19, she seized the opportunity. She imagined making foresty creatures that would blend in with the natural surroundings, offering a jolt of surprise and delight to anyone who came upon them.
She began her project in the forested section of Robert Burnaby Park in August. First she built a unicorn, then the one she calls The Guardian of the Forest. Then a fairy, a gigantic troll, a dragon, a mermaid, a Chewbacca. There are seven large sculptures in all, along with two smaller Ewoks and a wasp. She would spend hours on each, weeks on end.
Before word of the project leaked out beyond the locals who walk in the park regularly – many of whom Lewis got to know – she would sometimes tag along and hover in the background as people discovered and discussed them. The Guardian would prompt a fair amount of debate. What is this – a raven? A mouse?
“I’ve heard bird, elephant, I’ve heard hedgehog – never thought of that,” Lewis says.
With local media coverage, more people have converged on the park. There’s not a lot to do these days, especially for families, and even in non-pandemic times, the idea of hiking through a forest and finding a life-sized twig Chewbacca is pretty appealing.
She did a TV interview last weekend and had to wait in line just to get to one of her pieces.
“This was never my intent. I don’t want to be famous,” Lewis says. “I just wanted to create joy for people in the forest with sticks.”
She’s decided to use the power of attention for good and is asking visitors to the park and her website (thewizardsmakery.com) to donate, if they can, to Anxiety Canada – a cause close to her heart.
Meanwhile, Echo the Non-Binary Unicorn is a lot worse for wear – it was not meant for climbing and yet some children could not resist.
“Unfortunately that one has received a lot of abuse from little humans who want to ride a unicorn – which, who doesn’t, right? – and they weren’t ever meant to hold weight,” Lewis says. “So every time someone has sat on it, it has slowly started to sink and the legs have started to buckle. And so, it will one day just become a big pile of sticks.”
She feels ambivalent: worried about the impact on the park, but thrilled at the response. Last Saturday, for instance, the park was buzzing, mostly with families. “In this time when you don’t hear a lot of laughter and you don’t see a lot of people expressing joy to other strangers, it was moving. You couldn’t help but be excited.”
But go at the right time, and you will have the place mostly to yourself. I went on a rainy weekday morning and encountered not a single person for the first half of my visit; a handful of people as the clock ticked closer to noon. Trudging through mud, isolation and a little trepidation as I navigated what for me, dedicated urban dweller, was unfamiliar terrain – not that much different from the pandemic, minus the mud – the sculptures were magical rewards. The first one I found was the mermaid, just hanging out by a creek. Part of the fun is how well the pieces blend into the surroundings, making you unsure if what you’re seeing is one of Lewis’s creations – or simply nature’s. In the end, even using the pins Lewis has added to Google Maps, I never managed to find the giant troll or the crowd favourite, the dragon. I’m going back – with my kid this time, so we can both experience the magic of Lewis’s project.
They are unmarked; only the Chewbacca has a plaque next to him. It’s dedicated to Jamie, the late son of one of the elderly people Lewis met in the park; there is a memorial to him at the top of a steep hill nearby that the woman is unable to get to, she explained to Lewis, so Lewis wanted to make a tribute that would be more accessible.
Lewis, 38, is on her way to becoming an educational assistant; she is currently doing her practicum at a school far from this forest. She had thought about maybe making more sculptures, but that won’t be happening – at least not in this park. On Wednesday, the City of Burnaby told her to stop. No new work, no collecting sticks from any parks. There are concerns, they told her, about the impact of too much human traffic on the ecosystem.
“I totally get that. But it is a bit of a bummer and I did have a cry about it,” Lewis says.
The City of Burnaby “embraces and encourages creative and artistic expression” and thinks having the structures in the park is “fun and exciting,” it said in a statement emailed to The Globe and Mail. The City is asking people to enjoy them safely, physically distanced and without damaging the natural areas.
“These artworks are becoming very popular and we have reached out to the artist to ask her to encourage people to enjoy them in a way that respects the parkland environment,” the statement continued. “We have no plans to remove the artworks at this time. However we will continue to monitor impacts to the park.”
Lewis has since posted on social media about needing sticks – and says the response has been overwhelming. She’s also working on a proposal to send to other nearby cities to gauge interest in having her build in their public spaces.
And she is working on a twig-sculpture tribute to frontline workers in a neighbourhood close to a hospital. Maybe “treat” is a better word than “tribute”; she wants these people to see the whimsical pieces as they walk to and from work.
She doesn’t want to reveal the details of the project. The surprise of the discovery is a key part of the fun.
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