Forum: Odyssey in the Okanagan

The “Austrian model” sculpture symposium was initiated in 1959 by sculptors Karl Prantl and Mathias Heitz, who were inspired by previous symposia in Yugoslavia in the early ’50s. In this type of symposium, an entity, whether sculptor-run or otherwise, invites sculptors to a community, quarry, or work-site to make sculpture with locally available materials, such as stone or wood, and to work in full view of the public. The sculptors are provided with room and board, sometimes with a travel allowance and honorarium as well. The resulting sculpture usually remains with the host community. Since the sculptors live, work, and “sympose” together in close proximity, i.e., eat, drink, and discuss, a camaraderie develops among them.

Work by Bill Vazan created at OTISS.

The Okanagan-Thompson International Sculpture Symposium (OTISS) took place in the valley of the Okanagan Lake, in south-central British Columbia, Canada. It was scheduled to last for three months, from mid-May to the end of August 2002 (though in reality the process took much longer), and included eight different host communities with 20 sculptors divided among them, 10 Canadian and 10 international. OTISS was planned as the most geographically extensive symposium in Canada, with the largest budget, estimated at 1.5 million Canadian dollars.

A panel of five notable professors, critics, and artists chose the participating sculptors from 3,500 slide submissions. Many of the sculptors arrived in British Columbia expecting their materials to be on hand so they could begin work, but in some cases it took up to a month to obtain appropriate materials and get started with the project. The materials used include granite, marble, jade, steel, bronze, stainless steel, wood, saplings, and environmental elements.

All of the overseas sculptors came with experience at other international symposia following the original Austrian model. As it transpired, the Okanagan symposium was more of an association of sculpture commissions than a “symposium.” Since the sites spread over 200 mountainous kilometers, the original model became impractical. Even within a community that hosted four artists, such as Penticton, the sculptors lived and worked in different areas of town, using unrelated materials and facing transportation and communication problems. Despite the hurdles and distances, most of the sculptors in the symposium became good friends, thanks to individual initiative and various planned social events in the communities. The photo-documentary team of Joyce and Bill De Meester of Kelowna, who brought friendship, information, and assistance during their visits to each work-site, also helped to unify the sculptors.

Work by Jon Barlow Hudson created at OTISS.

The sculptors were dispersed as follows: the British team of Philip Bews and Diane Gorvin, Marion Jamieson of British Columbia, Dawn MacNutt of Nova Scotia, and Zhao Lei of China were based in Kelowna; Giles Kent of England, Geert Maas of British Columbia, Percy Zorrilla Soto of Peru, and Bill Vazan of Quebec were installed in Kamloops; Caroline Ramersdorfer of Austria, Tanya Preminger of Israel, and Deborah Wilson of British Columbia were billeted in Vernon; Fahcheong Chong of British Columbia, Lorna Green of England, Yoshio Yagi and his friend/assistant Mitsunori Koike of Japan, and myself were in Penticton; Toru Fujibayashi of British Columbia and Zhu Shangxi of China worked in Lake Country; Steward Steinhauer of Alberta camped in Summerland; the team of Don and Amy Dickson were situated near the U.S. border in Osoyoos; and Jock Hildebrand of British Columbia, who helped bring the symposium to fruition, was established in Westbank, headquarters of OTISS.

For those sculptors working in stone, the majority of the material was donated: white marble from Vancouver Island and both granite and marble from outside Vernon, the acquisition of which was an adventure in itself. Some pine logs were donated, but steel, stainless steel, bronze casting, and earthworks had to be paid for or supplied with “in kind” arrangements.

Not long after the sculptors arrived, OTISS’s Board of Directors announced that because a significant portion of the funding had fallen through, construction budgets would have to be cut in half. The artists were also asked to accept cuts in their contracted commissions. The news was not enthusiastically received and cast a tone of uncertainty over the symposium. As time went on, the limitation on construction expenses caused more difficulties for some than others. When the second progress payments began to be doled out piecemeal and then not at all and expense-reimbursement went on hold, dissatisfaction mounted. Frustration turned to action very near the end, as most of the artists collaborated in a letter to OTISS, requesting that it honor the contractual commitment.

About mid-way through the project, the sculptors were asked if they would be willing to donate a small-scale sculpture for a fund-raising auction, to be held at a spectacular, de Chirico-esque hilltop winery overlooking the Okanagan, near Westbank, which most of them did, although two artists (supported by the others) boycotted it. Works were sold and funds raised, but finances still fell far short of the requisite sum, despite the heroic efforts of the OTISS staff, many of whom were volunteers.

Despite the various difficulties, the sculptors continued optimistically. It is a tribute to their professionalism and dedication that they all completed and installed their sculptures as they had contracted to do. These installations continued into May 2003, when the last ones were completed. OTISS continues to seek funds and has recently received a significant grant, but only for present and future expenses, supporting the vision of another symposium. As of June 2003, a local paper reported that the last community was paying off the final installments owed the sculptors. This project has been an example of what can go right and what can go wrong with public art projects; but with vision, dedication, and a mountain of hard work by a lot of folks, it can be successful.