Few would argue Portuguese Joe Silvey lived a momentous life.
Plucked from his home on a remote rocky island in the middle of the Atlantic at the age of 12 by his father to go whaling, Silvey eventually carved a colourful legacy as one of the true characters of colonial British Columbia.
A century-and-a-half later, Silvey’s great-great-grandson Luke Marston is doing some monumental carving of his own.
On Saturday, in Stanley Park, Marston will unveil a 14-foot-high bronze statue called Shore to Shore — his tribute to Silvey and the impact he had on the history of our coast.
At 38, Marston has established himself as one of the emerging stars in B.C.’s rich galaxy of carvers. His work is on permanent display at Government House in Victoria and has served as the ceremonial centrepiece of the federal government’s national Truth and Reconciliation tour.
But relaxing in his Ladysmith home Tuesday, clad in jeans and a red-and-green Portuguese soccer jersey, Marston had no hesitation in confirming what Shore to Shore means to him.
The culmination of a five-year journey, creating this monument to his ancestor marks the apex of his career so far, not only professionally, but personally.
The growth he experienced stepping beyond his typical role of artist to manage a massive international project; the rush of seeing his most ambitious artistic endeavour firing to life beneath his fingertips exactly as he envisioned; the intense satisfaction of creating a legacy for his family that will be viewed by people from around the world for generations to come: this process was defining for the soft-spoken artist on so many levels.
He freely admits he had no idea what he was getting into.
“Truly, I don’t think I knew how big it was going to be,” he said. “I didn’t feel any pressure until I was at a gallery and somebody came up and said “you’ve really got a lot of responsibility here.’”
Silvey is a legend of pioneer Vancouver. His story was celebrated in a 2004 book by Jean Barman and a subsequent documentary film by Canada’s Omni Network.
Born in the Azore Islands off Portugal sometime around 1830, Silvey jumped ship in 1860 to try his hand in the B.C. gold fields. He stayed to hunt whales from a rowboat, homestead Stanley Park’s Brockton Point, operate one of Vancouver’s first saloons, launch the local seine fishing industry, marry twice, and father 11 children, including Elizabeth Silvey, Vancouver’s first baby to combine First Nations and European heritage.
Marston said the element of Silvey’s story that resonates for many people is the fact he was just a regular guy, a self-made man of humble beginnings who did things his way and succeeded.
It was a story he grew up with. Marston’s mother, Jane — a noted carver in her own right — is the great-granddaughter of Silvey’s second wife, Kwatleematt, also known as Lucy.
“I knew the story growing up, but I didn’t know the whole extent of the story,” Marston said.
That changed after a local screening of the documentary film he attended with his family.
Jane told her family of artists there was talk of a plaque being dedicated to commemorate Portuguese Joe and asked if they were interested in doing something more substantial. The answer was yes.
Luke not only became the artist, he became the project manager. For someone who had only previously worked as a commissioned artist, the process of birthing something this ambitious was an eye-opener.
“Everybody wanted it to happen, but there was no funding,” he said.
Shore to Shore eventually became a $600,000 project, not counting his personal contribution.
It involved gaining the support of the governments of Canada and Portugal, three Vancouver-area First Nations, and the City of Vancouver.
It involved countless carving hours in his Kulleet Bay workshop, trips to a bronze foundry in Alberta to oversee the casting, and a long-distance relationship with a stone mason from the Azores.
It involved countless pitches and pleas for approvals and funding, and forging connections with movers and shakers from Vancouver and beyond.
It involved ancillary castings, silk screen prints, blankets, and a new book and film documenting the process.
Things that appeared simple on the surface, rarely were. Take for example the location of the piece.
To the family, it made sense to mount it at Brockton Point, the place Silvey called home. Then Jo Weaving of the Vancouver Parks Board pointed out that while everybody wants to display their art in Stanley Park, precious few are ever awarded that honour.
“She said to me at one point ‘Vancouver is a hard place to get a piece of public art. Stanley Park is the hardest place in Vancouver,” Marston chuckled.
“Yeah, man, it was not easy. It was crazy, but I had a lot of mentors.”
He credits his mom and her connections and the fundraising expertise of his late brother-in-law Miles Phillips with helping him find the right doors to knock on. And he says the financial support of B.C.’s Portuguese and business community was essential. Fil Jorge of Avante Concrete and Keith Scott of Beachcomber Hot Tubs were two who went above and beyond.
Their support eventually helped the project gain a key $260,000 federal government grant.
“There really was no funding. The Portuguese community hugely embraced Joe. If the Portuguese community hadn’t have come in....”
And this weekend it will all come together.
Officials from two countries, three First Nations and the city will join members of Portuguese Joe’s extended family and the general public for the grand unveiling. Blessings, speeches, blanketing ceremonies and feasting will rule the day.
Vancouver’s Portuguese community is expected to be out in full force. The Ladysmith Arts Council commissioned a bus and invited locals to hop the ferry with them. The bus is sold out.
Marston will be making speeches of his own, something that would not have come as easily for him five years ago.
And then he will come home to tie loose ends before finding his next challenge.
When the sawdust settles Shore to Shore will break even. But any profits for its creator will come after the fact — the sale of the original wooden carvings used to make the bronze casts, or the original maquette upon which the final piece is based.
Some will point to the opportunity costs tied to the project — potentially lucrative commissions Marston postponed or abandoned while focused on this. Others will call it an investment in knowledge and experience and a high-profile boost to an already solid reputation that will pay off with work down the road.
The artist seemed unconcerned either way.
There were lessons learned, but no second-guessing and certainly no regrets. The applause that will echo Saturday as the tarp falls to the ground, isn’t necessary. Watching the shavings fall to the floor as his vision took shape seems to be all the affirmation he needs that what he did was worth the sacrifice.
“It just needed 100 percent of my attention,” he said. “With my work I like to tell stories and this story just has so much history tied to it. I could see it come together. When you get into it, it just starts flowing.
“There was nothing in my mind that was ever going to stop me.”
A subtle collision of two cultures
On the surface, Shore to Shore is First Nations sculpture based on the Salish teachings of the late iconic carver Simon Charlie.
And like all Salish art, it tells a story.
But there is more than one shore at play here. On top of his Salish traditions, Luke Marston incorporates subtle elements of his Portuguese heritage as well.
Carved of yellow cedar, Shore to Shore incorporates seven main elements that were individually shipped to Alberta for casting using a process called lost wax. The resulting bronze pieces were then assembled into a finished tableau and mounted on a stone base.
Three elements are life-sized depictions of Portuguese Joe, his first wife ? (granddaughter of the great Chief Capilano), who died two years after they were married, and his second wife, Marston's great-great grandmother Kwatleematt.
The other four elements combine into an overarching depiction of a traditional Salish fishing lure. Representing Silvey's legacy as a fisherman, it is capped with a raptor's head meant to represent both the Salish eagle and the hawk that lends the Azores their name. Its shape deliberately evokes the dormant volcano of Pico, Silvey's island birthplace.
The base is made from Azorean stone, laid out in a mosaic of Azorean style, but based on wave patterns commonly found in Cowichan sweaters.