Cane in hand, Haydn Davies gingerly moves his frail, 83-year-old frame through the spacious, art-filled ravine house that he and his wife, Eva, have called home since 1972.
Earlier this year, he suffered a severe heart attack that put him in the intensive-care ward of a Toronto hospital. Home now less than four weeks, he's still technically an outpatient, taking, he confesses with a dry chuckle, "seemingly every pill known to mankind. Really, it has been a long and very irritating session."
Davies's body and soul are recovering, too, from another, well . . . "irritation" is perhaps too mild a word to describe what happened June 29 at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology in Sarnia, Ont. That afternoon, a back-hoe showed up at a causeway there to demolish a large, laminated red-cedar sculpture that had been placed alongside a reflecting pool in the fall of 1974. The sculpture was called Homage, its creator was Haydn Davies, and it now sits piled in pieces in a compost field on the college's campus.
This removal of one of Canada's most famous public sculptures -- ostensibly because its hollow forms were rotting and posed a safety hazard -- shocked artists and art lovers nationwide, none more than Davies himself who had been awarded the $10,000 commission from Lambton when he was 52, fending off 149 other entrants in an international competition. When it was standing, the monumental work evoked both the ruins of Stonehenge (which Davies had visited in 1952) and the cromlechs of Wales (Davies's birthplace) -- those megalithic burial sites formed by circles of flat stones mounted on upright ones. Homage became a sort of worldwide calling card for the artist, and in 1980 it was featured with works by Henry Moore, David Hostetler and others in Nicholas Roukes's pioneering study Masters of Wood Sculpture.
Davies last saw Homage about two years ago. "I was delighted at the way it had weathered," he says of that sentimental visit. "Cedar over the years takes on a silvery sheen and to my mind it was very, very beautiful."
Even if the 31-by-11-by-12-foot bulk of Homage, anchored to its site by steel plates, had severely deteriorated over its 31 years -- and there is fierce debate about whether this was the case -- demolition was unnecessary, Davies's supporters argue. Repairs could have been made, as happened in 1976, when fibreglass fabric was applied to the sculpture's upper surfaces to prevent snow damage.
At the very least, they say, the artist or his family could have been contacted beforehand by Lambton administrators and consulted about the possibility of moving it to another campus location or elsewhere in Sarnia or in Canada. As it was, Haydn Bryan Davies, 56, the oldest of the sculptor's two sons, only heard about the removal mere hours before its occurrence. Davies Sr. was still recovering in hospital when the action happened, and his family waited several days before gathering around his sick bed to tell him what had happened.
While there's been talk of creating a new Homage using Davies's original design, the artist doesn't think it's going to happen. For one thing, "at my age and health, I couldn't be involved, and I don't think I'd be happy without being involved." Another is the expense: Manufacturing Homage now would cost tens of thousands of dollars, maybe $100,000 or more. Furthermore, "I don't know if I could find anyone who could do it." (In 1974, assembly of the sculpture was done by Woodway Structural Components, a Burlington, Ont., company that specialized in laminated beams for churches. It no longer exists.) Lambton officials have indicated they'd be willing to place a plaque on Homage's original site. But Davies finds this "laughable. To me, that's something you do to mark a gravesite." He's not interested in an apology either, because "I think it's gone far beyond that." Meanwhile, the Davies family is "asking Lambton to put off any further destruction of what remains for a couple of weeks" while it talks with lawyers and considers what to do next.
Although Haydn Llewellyn Davies studied art in high school in Toronto and later took painting and drawing at the Ontario College of Fine Art, he didn't really think of becoming a sculptor until his two sons were in their late teens. In fact, for more than a quarter-century, he had a highly successful career in advertising, at one point becoming senior vice-president of McCann-Erickson of Canada Ltd.
By the early seventies, however, Davies was wearying of "all the administration" in that job. "Eva [an accomplished painter in her own right]and I agreed that this was not what we wanted to do. I wanted to get back into art. So I started tapering off." As an ad executive with plenty of disposable income, Davies "had the opportunity to travel to many of the good and great museums of the world," and in the course of these travels, he became increasingly interested in sculpture, especially large-scale geometric steel works created or inspired by such Russian constructivists as Vladimir Tatlin and Naum Gabo.
Although Davies had sculpted with clay in the late 1940s, "I always seemed to let it get too hard or too wet or too dry. It wasn't very satisfying." Steel, however, "was a new medium altogether," he says, and in 1972 he was accepted into the third-year fine arts program at the University of Toronto, specializing in sculpture. "I got hooked when I started welding steel."
Davies continued to work at the ad agency by day and take art classes at night. Indeed, he was still working at McCann-Erickson and studying at the university when he heard of the competition for a site-specific sculpture for the front entrance and main building of Lambton College. "I had no thought of winning," he says with a laugh, "nor any idea of how I'd actually accomplish whatever I might come up with." Nevertheless, he decided to drive to Sarnia to visit the college. "I felt immediately that it was a marvellous piece of architecture, all striated concrete and glass, but it was cold. I wanted to humanize it. So the wood idea came to me easily." Later, while en route by train to Montreal on advertising business, he began to sketch his ideas on a drawing pad. By that evening, he'd pretty much come up with the complete concept for Homage -- "something that's never happened to me so quickly before. Or since."
By 1976, Davies was out of the ad business entirely and working as a sculptor. "I've looked back to those days and sometimes thought I was mad," he observes. "But it really was the best thing I ever did." And while Homage gave his new career "a quantum leap forward," it's interesting to note that he did only one other large-scale sculpture in wood after its completion. The works in the years following, for collections in Venice and Brussels and Boca Raton, Fla., and head offices for companies such as Bell Canada and Gulf Canada, were made of steel or cast iron or aluminum or mixed media.
A wood maquette of Homage rests on a coffee table in Davies's living room overlooking a north Toronto ravine. But, of course, at roughly 15 by 5.5 by 6 inches, it's no substitute for the "real" thing. Sipping on a glass of water, running a hand through his fine silvery hair, Davies admits he's been trying to find something purposeful in all that's happened in the past month. "If [the Lambton episode]results in increased protection for Canadian art and artists, well, that's a good thing." Also, "it was a wonderful experience to feel the support of my family in the hospital. . . . The piece, you see, had meaning not just to me but to them. It was a legacy."