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N.S. group tries to bring memorial sculpture back to life Add to ...

There’s a search under way for “the doll,” a bronze figure commemorating hundreds of child casualties of the horrific explosion that rocked Halifax in 1917.

The slab of metal bore silent testament for decades. It survived even as the elements, neglect and vandalism battered the surrounding sculpture. But the moving symbol of lost childhood was itself lost after the rest of the sculpture fell into ruin and the city put the entire piece into storage.

“It’s very distressing for me because that was the key element,” said local blacksmith and sculptor John Little, part of a group trying to breathe new life into the sculpture’s remnants.

The group has been putting out the word in a desperate attempt to find the missing part of the sculpture. The doll was last seen after the city dismantled the sculpture in 2004. But some time in the past seven years, as the sculpture’s parts were shifted from location to location, it vanished.

“I’m concerned that the bronze was cashed in for a bottle of rum,” Mr. Little said. “Or it may be in someone’s living room, holding up a coffee table, propping open a door.”

Members of the group stressed the person who took it might not have considered it ill-gotten goods given that other parts of the sculpture vanished as it disintegrated. They are hoping publicity will convince anyone holding the doll to return it.

The missing centrepiece is an embarrassing end to the decline of an artwork raised to the city’s most shocking event. It was on Dec. 6, 1917, that a French cargo ship laden with wartime explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel in Halifax harbour, touching off a mammoth blast that killed an estimated 2,000 people.

Spanish artist Jordi Bonet moved to Quebec in his 20s. He worked on a huge scale, in spite of having lost an arm as a child, and has art on display across North America. In 1966, his explosion monument was unveiled in front of a library in Halifax’s north end that was itself commemorating the disaster. The artist died in 1979 and didn’t live to see the piece fall into decay.

Jamie MacLellan, who began running the city’s public art program well after the sculpture was taken down, agrees that the situation was handled badly.

“Certainly there’s a desire to do right,” he said. “There’s a desire to explore what our options are and be culpable for the mistakes of the past.”

The citizen group trying to revive the work recently got a chance to view the surviving remnants. They have been moved repeatedly and are now locked away in a half-size shipping container in a city suburb. The sculpture’s heavy base fills most of the floor, and the walls are lined with random bits. Visitors are rare.

“I don’t think there’s any point in trying to reconstruct [the sculpture], that’d be an insult to the artist and the piece,” Mr. Little said. “But maybe it could be put together in a way that says ‘this is what happens when you don’t have a good public art program.’ ”

In its original state, the sculpture featured an explosion of jagged metal that stood for the destruction of Halifax and vertical metal bars that represented the city’s rebuilding. Those elements were among the issues that prompted the city to dismantle the work. Children loved climbing on the sculpture, and a 2004 report pointed to the risk of someone slipping and being stabbed.

The report, which also noted the physical decline of the sculpture, suggested reinstallation elsewhere or protected storage. The city opted to dismantle it, a decision that left some in the art world shaking their heads.

“They didn’t look after it,” said Ineke Graham, owner of the Halifax gallery Studio 21, who knew Mr. Bonet and treasures a piece he gave her in the 1960s. “When I heard that the sculpture was taken off its base and dumped I couldn’t believe it.”

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