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George Sawchuk - Yard Work 1988 - 2011

All photos by Bob Cain

1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck upright trunk with rectangular hole containing Miniature chopping block axe
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Upright Halved tree trunk coffee pot and plastic rose
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Mannequin head wearing hat atop tree trunk
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck wooden bench Bus Stop Post watch affixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck upright Halved tree trunk early telephone affixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck tree with rectangular hole containing doll on swing
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Yellow rope wrapped around tree
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Upright Halved Trunk with red light bulb sword cross afixed
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck leaning trunk Blue Rope Over Bicycle wheel
1988 03 15 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck Birdhouse Typewriter Company Store

All photos by Bob Cain

2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck blue sphere with spade and pressure guage atop a wood plank
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck red and grey fish hanging from tree branch
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck blue hand blue metal wheel mounted in grey form atop wood plank
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck cement fountian with chained tin cup red water faucet and lock
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck saw with canadian flag through tree and loggers helmet
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck shovel and pick in box on ground
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck blue tank with red faucet connected by pipe to green rubber sphere atop a wood plank
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck two sculpture with words on left not set a plate text on right mr blush mr martin text
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck metal gear chained to concrete ball mounted in concrete slab
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck colourful wood sculptures mounted to green wall
2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck portrait of George and Pat Sawchuck

2011 12 Sculpture Yard Work George Sawchuck portrait of George and Pat Sawchuck


An interview with George Sawchuk where he discusses his life and career, against a backdrop of his work in situ.

George Has Work to Do
By Grant Shilling

Christmas Day 2011, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Comox, BC. The shadow of the inevitable, cast by electronic, bedside monitors, digitally declare George Sawchuk’s vital signs. George, 85 - up in bed, reading glasses on, trusty Guardian in one giant paw - talks about Havel, Harper, Mother Russia, Obama and the Occupy Movement, in his own version of a 2011 year end review.

All seems vital here.

We share some smoked salmon I’ve brought and George tells more stories: awhile back he needed a transfusion bag, not for himself, you understand, but for a computer - a lifeless piece of cast-off technological junk that George was trying to revive through art. Poppa got his brand new bag. It was spirited away from St. Joe’s by an anonymous Florence Nightingale, who had left it hanging on his door handle at home. George filled the bag with fake blood and hooked it up to the computer: vital signs in the giant paws of the creator.

St. Joseph was the husband of the Virgin Mary and the earthly father of Jesus Christ. George has some serious issues with the Catholic Church, specifically with the nuns, and their putting the fear of hell into a seven-year-old who used to stay awake nights, scared by this idea of an eternal fiery inferno - so we joke that George is here on Christmas day as an act of shit-disturbing.

Born in Kenora in 1927 or 1929 - he’s not sure which - the son of a Polish mother and a Russian father. His father was a pulp mill worker. George was the eldest of six children. Although he left school in Grade Six, Sawchuk’s early education did leave its mark. Throughout his training at a traditional Roman Catholic school, he received lessons in the Russian language and "World Politics" for two hours on weekdays and Saturday mornings. These lessons were sponsored by the local Bolshevik, or Labour Hall.

What George liked most of all about the Bolshevik Hall was the soup kitchen they had for wayfaring people. “I’d see them coming in off the freight trains just frozen stiff and dressed in rags and old overcoats. It was pathetic.” he recalls.

What was more pathetic was that the police would come and search these poor souls and question them. “And I didn’t know what for? After all they were just passing through. And the worst thing of all was that the civilians would come, vigilantes with their clubs and shotguns and shake them up. I’d think, what is this civilian doing here, what has he got against these people?” George says that it is incidents like these which have shaped him into the man he is today. “Poor buggers - starving and freezing to death, and still having to deal with this shake up.”

At the age of fifteen Sawchuk winter-camped with a work crew near Kenora, timber cruising: scouting out timber for falling crews. "All of our food was mushed in by a Native fella with a sled dog team - the cook tent was so small that only three could fit into the tent; the others had to stand outside eating food with our mitts on. We had to eat the food real quick before it froze," he says, chuckling. "Well, the musher didn’t show for a few days and we had no food. I remembered that he kept corn meal and beef tallow for his dogs at the camp. We ate that for three days," says Sawchuk, making a face of disgust. “It was too cold for the dogs to sled,” George eyes light up and he chuckles “too damn cold for the dogs to work - but we had to!”

George next found work at a pulp mill. He was 16. “I was working the graveyard shift for the pulp mill, and at about two o’clock in the morning I took this pike pole that you work with and I threw it out to the lake. And I said: Fuck this goddam system!” George went home and packed a bag.

Faced with the choice of a life working for the pulp mill or the railroad, George grabbed a freight train out of Kenora as soon as he could reach the second rung of a freight car, he says. They said he’d be back after a day or two. “But I didn’t come back for 38 years and that was only for one night." Sawchuk headed out west for a life in logging camps, on fishing boats and other manual labour. He loved "buggering off" to the woods, working in fly-by-night logging camps and escaping the constraints of people and the city.

In 1956, while working at a steel mill, a pile of metal slipped and crushed his leg. For the next decade, Sawchuk would live with significant pain, while doctors tried a variety of treatments. Finally in 1968, his lower leg was, as Sawchuk puts it, “bucked off.” He was without pain, and for the first time in his adult life had time to explore an interest in making things. He bought a chainsaw with his first compensation cheque and began to carve nooks in trees, where he placed what would become his trademark: wooden books filled with colourful quotations.

When rehabilitated from his accident Sawchuk wanted to work again, but no one would hire him. “I realized I was a piece of technological junk. I ended up on the scrap heap. Capitalists will use you and lose you, like a commodity.”

In 1976, at the age of fifty, and well settled into middle age, George came to Fanny Bay, to finally own a patch of land with his partner Pat Help.“ I told Pat: you know, I’m not getting any younger. And my leg is not going to grow back again so we have to start thinking about getting a little more secure.” They bought four acres for 8 thousand dollars, cleared the land by hand and got a garden going - one that sustains them to this day. He lived off the land and the sea and in a little trailer that still sits forlornly in their yard, and slowly built his and Pat’s home. When he didn’t have money, he’d find freedom in the woods, as he had since childhood.

“I can’t say why I did what I did,” says Sawchuk in reference to the artwork he began to construct in the woods. Because he can’t think of a reason, George concludes it must have been natural: “ There was no money in it. I wasn’t looking to have my picture in the paper…” He just kept at it.

His expression of freedom often mixed with formalism. He carried on a dialogue with Catholicism and Communism and other matters - especially oil and water - which was played out in his artwork in the woods: a kind of tug-of-war, best represented by a tree, into which George drilled two holes: you cut holes in a tree, you have to put something back, says George - who would thread a thick barge rope through the holes. George was intrigued: which was stronger, the tree or the rope? God or a communist?

“When someone said I was being unfair to the tree, I cut the rope. I didn’t want to hurt the tree, I was just curious.” Having been exposed to both dogmatism and didacticism, neither has found a place in George’s world. George says he sees more similarities between Christianity and Communism than conflict. “Sure there is a conflict if you take either to extremes. Then it becomes a fundamentalist religion and it’s a screw-up, eh. So you can’t totally devote yourself to just one ideology, you have to have counter-balance. When I look at the way Marx and Engels wrote it up, and I look at the Christian way of life - I see a lot of balance there.”

A pair of logging caulk boots sit on a cedar-based plinth in the woods. George shrugs and “guesses” it is a statement on labour. He pauses and adds that if there is one central theme to the woods it is disparity. We begin to discuss the Occupy movement and its most recent manifestation of occupying homes that are about to be foreclosed. This gets George thinking:

"I’ve dragged enough bloody trees out of the bush in BC to build two to three million homes. But here comes the problem: Why is it I have to work all of my life just to own one of them? The balance isn’t there somehow. I guess you could say that growing up I was angry, in a way. Angry in the way that things are set up: rich/poor, the haves and the have-nots. Some people are born with a silver spoon and some people are born with a shovel. It’s great to be an artist, they can’t control you. You can say whatever you want."

Sawchuk chainsaws revolutionary and intellectual depth into his sculptures. In his pieces he is able to cohere his storytelling, philosophies and abilities with materials into beautiful forms. As Sawchuk says, “A man who works with his hands is a labourer. A man who works with his hands and heart is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, heart and mind is an artist.” Then he pauses. “But what is an artist?” Looking at his hands he proceeds to tell a series of work-accident stories. Then, as if to answer his own question, in a humble manner Sawchuk notes, “I wash the dishes every night. I play around with my hands in the warm water every evening for a half hour or so. That keeps my fingers flexible.”

George is an old soul, filled with natural warmth and humility, a deep curiosity; he is a grandfather figure to all and the perfect host. His forest gallery has served as a magnet for travellers, where George is available to any who care to wander up to the house or visit him and Pat in the backyard. There is no boundary between public and private.

One area of the forest George labeled with signs: “Walden’s Way” and “Walden’s Pond,” another area: “Ville Duchamp.” George's introduction to their work was from a kindly librarian in North Vancouver who opened up the world to his curiosity. “ Before then I never knew who Picasso was; I thought he was the goddam mailman.”

In fact, the first time George was in an art gallery was for his initial show at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery in 1970. The show came about after a neighbour of his in North Vancouver, the artist Ian Baxter, founder of the N.E. Thing Co., became aware of his work and began to familiarize George with art history.

“I'd been doing this stuff for a couple of years. I had a lean-to set up against the house with maybe a dozen sculptures under it - but I never called it art or anything - I’m still reluctant to call it that. Then Ian came along and that changed everything. Ian said ‘What you are doing here is viable stuff!’”

Unbeknownst to George, Baxter made an arrangement to have a showing at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery. But George claims he was not told anything about it.

I remember coming home, changing my clothes in the basement and I looked and something is missing, maybe twelve to fifteen pieces - all of it gone. I just figured it’s gone - it’s gone. I just went up and had my dinner and got talking and then the phone rang. It was Ian and he said: George you better get changed and get ready we are going to UBC for the opening.’

‘I said, ‘What are you talking about Ian?’”

“He said, ‘Its an opening of your work.’”

“I said, ‘I noticed it was missing. You got it?’”

Duchamp was a game changer for George. Water faucets, urinals, just about anything could be art. It wasn’t made exclusively for a privileged person is how George interpreted it. Duchamp, says George, had the greatest influence on him. Sawchuk combines pieces of metal, porcelain, mirrors and found objects - often the discarded tools of various trades - with the trees themselves, creating what he refers to as totems. Some of the pieces are memorials to fellow labourers: Push Me Up Joe, Shiplap Sam, Ted (“a one-eyed donkey puncher, ”) artists such as Greg Curnoe, and activists Nelson Mandela and others.

Now that George has entered the art world he is often asked to give talks at art schools and universities. “I’ll talk about anything but art for the first thirty minutes or so,” says George. “I always leave them with this: now that I’ve filled you with my b.s., put aside your brush and your chisel. Put all that aside and go into the real world for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. However long it takes. Now that you’ve crawled out of one womb, don’t make the same mistake as a lot of people and go crawling into another.”

Engraved in a wooden book, slipped into the notch of a cedar tree, deep in the forest are the words of Henry David Thoreau, ones that George Sawchuk has chosen to live,and eventually, inevitably die, by:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

In December of 2006 a powerful south-easter brought one hundred kilometer winds that battered much of the West Coast, most notably Stanley Park. In Sawchuk’s little pocket of the world trees were uprooted, and many of them damaged his work or blocked paths, making them inaccessible. Mother Nature had come to reclaim his art.

“You could hear the loud crack of the trees as they snapped like toothpicks,” says Sawchuk of the storms. There is no better faller than Mother Nature.

As Annette Hurtig perceptively notes in her 1988 introduction to the Yard Work catalogue: “ The forest is obviously both the background for and an element of the site specific project.”

You can’t buck Mother Nature, shrugs George. In a way, the storm has pushed Sawchuk to think about his artistic legacy and take stock of his part in the life cycle. “Everything must change,” says Sawchuk of his decision to leave much of his work to return to the forest.

“You see that log on the ground,” he points with a huge hand, “that log will be the source to so much life here in the forest.”

In addition to George’s works in the forest there are his ‘portables’ that are shown at galleries and kept in a workshop near the house. One of those portables found its way to the Cumberland Museum.

Just up the Island Highway from Fanny Bay in Cumberland is George’s homage to Ginger Goodwin, a labour hero of the region, and a union organizer shot dead by BC Provincial Police in 1918. Inside a glass case is a miniature coffin, and inside the coffin is a soft shell rifle cartridge similar to the one that killed Ginger Goodwin. Nearby the coffin is a chunk of coal in honour of all the coalminers of the region Goodwin represented. With coal mining once again being considered in the Comox Valley, the piece continues to resonate.

Sawchuk was inspired to do the piece after he sought out Goodwin’s (at the time) untended grave in Cumberland. “A fellow from the Cumberland Museum was here and he saw the piece and wanted it for the museum but said we couldn’t afford that.” There has been no shortage of offers to buy this work but George is not interested in playing the art-as-commodity game.

Sawchuk does not sell any of his work because “I’ve sold my back and prostituted my muscle most of my life but there comes a time in a person’s life when they have to decide they won’t do another thing for a dollar.” George donated the piece to the museum.

Of late George has gone to work on some mill ends a neighbour has dropped off for him. George, who walks to the work shed every day to labour, has recently produced some fine pieces with these mill ends: an homage to Magritte, complete with umbrella; another using gauges labelled 'hydrogen' and 'oxygen'; another 'moral compass' - which plants a hiking compass on the cover of a Bible which is bolted to a plinth like a roulette wheel.

Back at St. Joseph’s hospital there is a discussion about George requiring a pacemaker. The pacemaker would be his second prosthetic, this one a little more elaborate than the one to fit his leg after it was amputated. He is excited about the prospect of the electronic device being installed within him.

George once said that he is “…trying to revive this stuff the capitalists throw out and bring it back like ghosts of the past to haunt them. And then too, these objects are cast-offs like me, so maybe they’re self portraits as well.” The pacemaker is a case of art mirroring life.

On New Years day, 2012, George came back home to Fanny Bay from the hospital. He stops to admire some Junco’s at the bird feeder, takes a deep breath of fresh air and gets to work.

George has lived. George is loved. George has work to do.

Additional Sources:

Ferguson, Bruce. A Natural Politic. Vanguard Magazine. April, 1981

Hurtig, Annette. Yard Work. Catalogue. Western front Publications. 1988

Kendall, Sue Ann. Canadian Artist Whittles Homespun Philosophy into Wood. The Seattle Times. Sunday, January 30, 1983.