It began over a cup of coffee.
Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre exhibit chair Lise Andreana was chatting with Parks Canada National Historic Sites Manager Lisa Curtis, who mentioned she would love to see a trench art-themed exhibition.
A few years later, and because of their combined love of history and art, their discussion about the potential project has come alive.
In collaboration with Niagara-on-the-Lake artist Ronald Boaks, Parks Canada and the Niagara Military Museum, the Niagara Pumphouse’s newest exhibition Looking Back — Forging Forward: Trench Art & Ronald Boaks is now on display.
Andreana said at the exhibit’s grand opening last Thursday that Boaks came under the “very strong recommendation” of a friend. Once she visited his gallery, she realized “there was a very strong connection between Ron’s work and that of the soldiers.”
There are almost 40 pieces in the exhibit, 28 made from a variety of materials, including print recruitment posters, brass artillery shells, machined aluminum, shell casings, cartridge heads.
Boaks’ intriguing sculptures are made from pieces of metal and other material salvaged from junkyards and elsewhere.
The sculptures are displayed alongside as what are described as both utilitarian and artistic objects, crafted by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War.
His work includes welded steel chariots, human-like figures and objects that combine metal and wood.
“It was equally clear that recycling and repurposing are not new ideas. It has been going on since the dawn of time,” Andreana said. “Ron’s sculptures reflect the timelessness of recycling and the creation of meaningful beauty from discarded items.”
Boaks said nature provides a myriad of resources and what is discarded has creative artistic potential.
“When I create pieces, they bring out beauty, balance, desire and humour,” he said. “They also are infused with joy. With that in mind, I hope when people view and purchase my work they feel that joy also. It gives me great pleasure to do it.”
The trench art exhibition is the Pumphouse’s fifth in a series of collaborative projects between Parks Canada and the Niagara Military Museum, and is part of the organization’s 25th anniversary theme, Looking Back — Forging Forward.
“There are some similarities between my methods and trench art,” said Boaks, noting his creative process starts with seeing the relationship between objects.
“The biggest difference is that the soldiers were under extreme duress that could be escalated at any time. Thanks to them, I do it in peace, definitely a luxury.”
The difficulty is in creating something with character that makes the viewer see the result as such, rather than “just a bunch of stuff stuck together,” Boaks said. “Like a good illustration or painting, the sculpture takes you elsewhere.”
Inspired by Niagara’s history, the exhibition is part of a series of educational, pop-up art installations offering opportunities and art experiences for all ages and interests, through the support of Niagara Region’s Niagara Investment in Culture Program.
Exhibits chair Mark Skeffington described the exhibition as juxtaposition of modern and 100-year-old art, and a great example of community collaboration.
“War is a long, boring experience,” Parks Canada corporate programming co-ordinator Scott Finlay said.
“For many soldiers, they still had a creative soul that was not going to go away even though they were in battle. On the contrary, it kept them busy in the down time,” said Finlay.
Boaks will host a group of 10 people on Aug. 29 to tour his studio and collaborate in producing a layout for a sculpture to further their appreciation for the process of sculpture.
The exhibition runs at the Niagara Pumphouse until Sunday, Sept. 29.