Ruth Abernethy never met Oscar Peterson. She was a casual fan, a touch in awe like so many others. But over the last two years, she's become deeply devoted to the late jazz legend.
"Devotion" is how the renowned Canadian sculptor describes the intimate connection she forms with her subjects, forged from months of studying features to find the character behind them.
"It's an odd thing to spend that many hours poring over photographs of someone," she says, cradling a cup of coffee inside the CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters.
About 100 metres away sits Abernethy's famous sculpture of Glenn Gould perched on a bench in cap and coat. Its fame - as well as acclaim for her bronzes of Al Waxman and Manitoba Theatre Centre founders John Hirsch and Tom Hendry - made her the obvious candidate to memorialize Peterson after he died in late 2007.
This week, a foundry northwest of Toronto began casting her Peterson likeness in bronze while a committee of prominent Canadians - including former Ontario premier Bill Davis, former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry and Asper Foundation president Gail Asper, and driven by National Arts Centre president Peter Herrndorf - is trying to raise $210,000 to pay for it.
The statue, to be unveiled June 30 as part of Canada Day celebrations, will adorn the southwest wall of the National Arts Centre at the corner of Elgin and Albert Streets in Ottawa. Peterson sits comfortably at an piano, resting his left elbow next to the keyboard.
The idea for the statue took hold after a 2008 memorial concert performed in Toronto in the wake of Peterson's death. When a newspaper wondered whether Peterson would get the same treatment Gould had, several people turned to Abernethy, a busy mother who lives near Waterloo and has a parallel career as a theatrical prop builder. At the urging of friend John Miller, she wrote to the National Arts Centre to express interest. She was met with great enthusiasm for honouring Peterson's legacy.
"As a musician and as a cultural ambassador for this country, I think he raised the bar so high that he made it possible for most everyone else to pass under it," said Ross Porter, president of JAZZ FM91 radio and a committee member.
So began the huge challenge of immortalizing the pianist. Abernethy spends months mentally rendering a statue in her mind, studying dozens of images to create a composite portrait.
"It's an onstage moment," says Abernethy of the statue's pose. "With performers, I'm doing them, but I'm also doing them doing them, if you see what I mean. They have their own sense of presenting themselves."
Next she "maps" the figure, deciding its proportions (in this case, 6 per cent larger than life so he won't seem small when visitors stand next to him) and tracing its outer contours from the front and side: "it's the Bugs Bunny through the wall trick," she explains.
Then the sculpting starts. Abernethy takes an extremely sharp knife to large blocks of low-density styrene. Where the knife proves too cumbersome, she shapes the surface with rough sandpaper. Then she coats the entire figure in wax and moulds the fine exterior details. The head is made separately, in modelling clay.
Though it's not commonly used, styrene has several advantages: It can be repaired, it's relatively cheap and it's light enough to be portable. Peterson in styrene and wax weighs a mere 27 kilograms (he'll tip the scales at about 204 kilograms in bronze).
The wax-and-styrene figure is cut into sections and coated in a ceramic slurry, which is fired into a hard shell. The wax and styrene are then melted out to make a hollow mould. The bronze pieces made of those moulds are then welded together and the seams smoothed over.
As with the Gould statue, Peterson's visitors can sit next to him on his piano bench. When a private moment presents itself, that's something his wife Kelly Peterson is anxious to do. Kelly was once a huge fan who met Peterson when he stopped in for an after-show bite at a restaurant she managed in Sarasota, Fla. They married in 1986, Peterson's fourth marriage.
"It's a wonderful thing, but it's also pretty emotional," she says over the telephone from the couple's Mississauga home.
Still, Abernethy says Kelly Peterson showed no reluctance about the project, nor have his admirers. Prime Minster Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen were among the first donors to the project, as were Liberal MP Bob Rae and his wife Arlene Perly Rae. Kelly Peterson has been overwhelmed by the public's desire to lend a hand in making the monument, fielding e-mails from all over the world offering donations.
"I was so touched that people wanted to do this for him," she adds.
The end result is what Abernethy calls "emotional architecture." The bronze Peterson seems at ease, smiling broadly. He's in his element but not proud or boastful, a grateful performer.
"You can tell from someone walking [by]whether their day has been stupid or whether they're going to get married - you actually do know that," Abernethy says. "What you do with that information is yours. What I do with it is this."