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Bringing history to life

Bringing history to life

Adrienne Alison’s work as a sculptor has taken many forms, from facial reconstruction to larger-than-life monuments.

Image supplied by Adrienne Alison

Two years ago, Toronto sculptor Adrienne Alison, Artsci’76, won a very big commission with a very tight timeline: take one year to create a substantial bronze monument to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 for the grounds of Parliament Hill.

For Ms. Alison, it was an exciting win – if a daunting task. “I had to make seven figures in eight months,” she laughs, “That’s madness!”

It was such a tight timeline that Ms. Alison didn’t even have a chance to see all seven two-metre-tall figures grouped together until they were fitted on their base last November, just a short time before the finished monument was unveiled. She was thrilled with the result. “I had always wanted to do something in Ottawa,” she says, “but I never expected that it would be something of this scale. It’s a real honour.”

[sculpture image]
Image supplied by Adrienne Alison

The sculpture, which Ms. Alison titled “Triumph Through Diversity,” is located in front of Parliament Hill’s East Block where it engages the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in quiet dialogue, while recognizing the role anonymous Canadians played in defending their country.

Ms. Alison sculpted the figures, which include a Métis fighter, a Royal Navy sailor and a French voltigeur, among others, using live models dressed in period-appropriate costumes. “In some cases, it took me months to find a model with the appropriate ethnicity,” she says, “but it was very important to have the right faces and a variety of ages represented.”

Ultimately, creating the monument required the efforts of almost 100 people. The process began with Ms. Alison creating a seven-inch high maquette, or model of the sculpture, which was then enlarged into a two-foot tall version, before being rendered at the full seven feet. Rubber moulds were then made from those figures, which were then cast in bronze using the "lost wax" technique. The final bronze sculptures were fitted to a granite base weighing 30 tonnes, a process that took three weeks. Finally, the plinths and figures were transported to Ottawa for installation.

Recently, she also created a monument to General Sir Arthur Currie for Museum Strathroy-Caradoc in Strathroy, Ontario, which was unveiled in August 2014. “To have both of these important projects in one year was truly extraordinary,” she says.

Ms. Alison has not always been a full-time sculptor. After graduating from Queen’s with a degree in art history, Ms. Alison pursued training in biomedical communication at the University of Toronto, a specialized program that allowed her to combine her love of art with a lifelong affinity for science. There, she studied anatomy with medical students while also learning to produce medical drawings in different media. She went on to specialize in facial prosthetics at the University of Michigan’s medical art program, eventually returning to Toronto where she established and ran the first facial prosthetics clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“My job was to fabricate the missing parts of a person’s face to fill it in,” she says, describing a job that allowed her to help people whose faces had been ravaged due to injury or illness, 60% due to cancer. “The best part of the work was the way my patients trusted me and shared their lives and their stories with me,” she recalls.

During her tenure with the hospital, Ms. Alison also had the opportunity to design and sculpt the first head forms for testing children’s hockey helmets. “I always had new projects coming through my door, so it was a continual process of inventing and problem-solving. In 1994, she won the Queen’s University Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award for her work in reconstructive medicine and for her volunteer work.

It was after moving to England with her family that she turned her attention to sculpting full time. “I began sculpting portrait busts of children,” she recalls, citing Renaissance sculptors Bernini and Michelangelo as inspiration, “and that really changed my life.”

Returning to Canada in 1996, Ms. Alison turned down the opportunity to go back to Sunnybrook in order to focus on her art. That same year, she began winning commissions to sculpt monuments – her first, a half-figure of Canadian artist C.W. Jefferys for a park near his former Toronto home – and hasn’t looked back.

We have an extraordinary story to tell.

Since then, she has created many more works – from private commissions to public monuments of historical figures like bishop John Strachan, newspaper magnate James Beaty, and Scottish-Canadian writer Robert Gourlay. She currently has a monument to Sir Isaac Brock in the works, along with one of Lord de Saumarez for the Island of Guernsey, U.K.

Ms. Alison, who still speaks fondly of her days at Queen’s (her sister, Karen Alison, is a 1976 grad, and her son, Callum Owen, is a current student), knows she has found her calling – one that allows her to combine her skill as an artist, her knowledge of anatomy, and her passion for Canadian history on a daily basis. “I love this country,” she says simply. “We have an extraordinary story to tell.”

[cover of Queen's Review 2015-1]