SUNDRE – The Sundre-area sculptor who led a team of Alberta artists to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in China said he was not “the least bit disappointed” by their project’s sudden partial collapse as they worked feverishly to finish the three-plus day endeavour.
What might by some have otherwise been considered a catastrophic anticlimax of dreams crashing down in a flash, was from Morton Burke’s perspective interpreted as being analogous with the current state of affairs in the world.
Burke was joined by Edmontonians Will Truchon and Linda Frena. The trio was among nearly 30 international teams who on Jan. 5-9 shared their passion for sculpting amid frigid temperatures in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province that shares a border with Russia’s Siberia.
The massive blocks of hard-packed snow were so big that they dwarfed the average person – scaffolds and ladders weren’t uncommon.
The days were long and tiring.
Burke even battled through a bad bug that temporarily left his team shorthanded while he rested up and recovered enough to return.
“I decided not to go to work and they took me to the hospital and did about an hour’s testing on me and everything,” he told the Albertan shortly after returning home.
While a gamut of medications helped improve how he felt, Burke said he was still left drained of energy.
“Thing is, I felt better but I wasn’t,” he said. “I’d start to work on something and my legs and my arms and everything were just weak.”
Taking it all in stride, Burke – who had been to many similar events and always been otherwise healthy – said that’s just how it goes sometimes.
So, while he was able to get the entire first day in, he took the second day off to rest.
“The third day, I went to the site but I wasn’t getting a lot done. Mentally, I wanted to get it done but I’d start to work and I was just washed out,” he said.
“I still don’t think I’m fully recovered,” he said, adding when asked that he would probably be recuperating for the rest of the weekend.
“I don’t think I’ll unpack until Monday!”
However, plenty of hearty food and comfortable rooms also helped strengthen his resolve, and things seemed to be coming together for the team despite Burke’s lost time.
Their entry, Spirit of Peace, was intended to depict a flying dove, and it was really taking shape.
The bird was taking flight out of five books underneath it, each one boasting on its spine the title “peace” in several languages: Mandarin, English, Russian/Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Arabic. The word “peace” is written the same in both Ukrainian and Russian.
But tragedy suddenly struck in a moment captured on video as the final touches were underway and the finish line was growing ever-nearer.
“We were just removing those balusters that supported the wings,” he said, adding he was confident the hard-packed snow would hold.
That’s when the force of gravity finally overcame the dove’s left wing and in less than a second, sent crashing down the appendage that took many hours over several days to meticulously and carefully carve.
“I didn’t have the slightest inkling that that was going to happen, and the minute we sawed through that snow, that thing just came crashing down,” he said.
“It was oddly surrealistic, you know. It was like being in some kind of an accident or something – it all happened in slow motion and everything, I guess just because it was so dramatic,” he said.
Yet he wasn’t remotely dismayed by the unplanned disassembly.
“It didn’t affect me at all – I didn’t have any sadness or anything, and within about 10 seconds I just had this realization that this is perfect,” he said.
“Our sculpture was (intended) to demonstrate the political problems there are in the world at this time. The title of it was Spirit of Peace, but for all intents and purposes, Peace. And here it was just smashed to smithereens,” he said.
“It was just allegorical.”
In other words, what takes so much time, planning, care, commitment and effort to create, remains in a constant state of fragility and can always quickly unravel at the seams.
“It was an absolute visual demonstration of the condition of peace in the world today, which turned the sculpture into a bit of a piece of unplanned performance art,” he said.
In one of his many regular updates on social media, he said, “I’m not the least bit disappointed this occurred.”
“The only thing that could have made it better,” he told the Albertan, “is if we’d have planned that. I kind of kicked myself that it was so obvious, that we didn’t plan to do that.”
Now finally back home, he said when asked how returning amid extreme cold weather felt, “We went over there planning for bitter cold and to be able to stay out and work in it.
“Actually, the weather was quite nice. And then we returned to what we thought we were going to experience over there,” he said.
“We took a whole case of hand warmers over there and never even used one,” he said, chuckling. “Now, I can bring them home and put them to good use!”
There were more than two dozen teams this year, with sculptors coming from all over Asia as well as Europe.
“We were the only North American team this year,” he said.
With his second time in Harbin now in the history books, Burke said he might one day consider returning once more.
“The big thing is to travel,” he said. “It’s about as far as any place in the world that you can go from here.”
Despite falling under the weather, Burke expressed no regrets and felt privileged for the opportunity to be there.
“You can’t have a bad experience at an event like that,” he said.
There are parts of the world where these kinds of events are put on as “tremendous celebrations” of art and culture, he said.
“The arts aren’t celebrated quite nearly so much in our part of the world,” said Burke, who for years has endeavoured to help shift attitudes.
“I think slowly, we’re making inroads into (generating) some excitement about the arts,” said Burke, who has more than 5,000 social media followers.
Burke is also the curator of Bergen Rocks International Sculpture Park, located on a rural acreage southwest of Sundre, which in the past had hosted symposiums with sculptors from around the world carving pieces from stone that ultimately became the site’s collection.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect Mandarin as one of the languages written on the sculpture as well as to clarify that the word "peace" in both Ukrainian and Russian is written the same.