Sackville’s newest piece of public art has a century-old elm at its heart

Artist Paul Griffin stands with his work, Elegy for an Elm, which recently appeared on the grounds of Cranewood on Main. Photo: Erica Butler
Artist Paul Griffin stands with his work, Elegy for an Elm, which recently appeared on the grounds of Cranewood on Main. Photo: Erica Butler
CHMA  - CHMA - SackvilleNB | 27-05-2022
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Earlier this month a large, shining, copper-covered shape appeared on the grounds of Cranewood Cafe and Bakery on Main Street. The striking sculpture, called Elegy for an Elm, is the work of artist Paul Griffin, and at its heart is an American Elm tree that once stood on the Mount Allison campus.

CHMA met artist Paul Griffin on the grounds of Cranewood to hear more about himself and his work. Listen in to that conversation here:

This is not the first elm-centred work by Griffin. Visitors to the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown may recall a large sculpture of an elm trunk completely covered in galvanized roofing nails, called Leviathan. Before that, Griffin also created Sarcophagus for an Elm, which finds its home on the Université de Moncton campus.

The newest piece stands apart from its predecessors in that it’s completely covered in copper sheeting, giving it a brilliant orange sheen that will slowly oxidize and change over time. Elegy for an Elm was created about a year ago in Griffin’s workshop, and has been waiting for a home since. Then recently Griffin noticed an ideal spot on the Cranewood grounds. “I thought this is such a beautiful aesthetic spot under these trees,” says Griffin, “and I thought that’s where that’s where I should put it.” He spoke with Cranewood owners Malcolm and Debbie Fisher, who agreed. “It all appeared the next morning,” says Griffin, “so Malcolm was quite surprised.”

Griffin says his interest in elm trees dates back to his childhood outside Ottawa, when he noticed “ghost like forms out in the forest”, the remains of elms ravaged by Dutch Elm disease. He says he felt “a mixture of kind of formal attraction, and then also, a kind of empathy for the loss of something.”

The Mount Allison campus was once home to a number of elm trees. The ‘Elegy’ tree once stood in front of Campbell Hall, and when it was being cut down, Griffin asked if he could take the tree and work with it.

Griffin guesses that Elegy for an Elm weighs between one and a half to two tonnes, so heavy equipment help was needed to move it to the Cranewood site. He says he’s often worked with local contractors like Bowser’s Construction or D&B Towing to get his work done, and finds them open and interested in what he’s doing. “Often people kind of put forward the idea that there’s a kind of tension or antipathy between trades and the arts. Well that’s never been the case with me,” he says. “I find Sackville is very supportive of the arts and I think it gives a breadth and a depth to the town where every spectrum is highlighted and developed.”

Griffin’s work bridges the industrial and the natural worlds, using construction materials to accentuate and highlight natural features and beauty. He’s been happy to see how people engage with his pieces. “One of the first things they do is they reach out to touch it, they kind of caress it,” says Griffin. “And that’s not something that you should do with construction materials.” That, to Griffin, signifies success in his work to fuse the industrial and natural elements.

For Griffin, the Elegy for an Elm is part homage to a century-old tree, and part a fascination with the shape, or the crux of the elm. “It’s almost a slow ballet of biology” says Griffin, “where the branches depart the trunks at certain points in time, and they form these really interesting shapes.”

“That was what attracted me,” says Griffin, “is this divergence.”