What’s up with the beautiful animal sculptures at Britannia Heritage Shipyards?
To find out more about these realistic but almost ethereal sculptures, a Richmond News reporter met up with artist Glen Andersen on a crisp winter morning for a private tour of his work.
“I’ve always been kind of interested in making found art,” said Andersen, who started out as a filmmaker and eventually became a public artist, often creating art out of objects he finds.
“And living in Richmond, the most abundant found thing on the river is, of course, driftwood — and all kinds of other stuff as well.”
Andersen’s first driftwood sculpture for Britannia Shipyards, the Log Nest Monsters, was created for the 2020 Maritime Festival. Since then, he has been asked to expand his magical collection for a semi-permanent installation in the area.
Steveston, especially Britannia Shipyards, is particularly special to the Richmond artist, as it has “so many layers of lost history.”
Andersen thinks interpreting the area’s history through the landscape is akin to “reading” Persian rug patterns, where motifs and meaning can only be spotted by those in the know.
As of now, there are seven art installations sprinkled around the area: a sea lion, a seal, a deer, beavers at work, a heron, a nest of birds and the Log Nest Monsters.
“Nothing’s permanent when you’re talking about driftwood. (The sculptures are) here until they decay, until they fall apart. And most of them were fairly solidly built so they could last five years,” said Andersen.
Though he doesn’t treat the material to make it more durable, the sculptures have been surprisingly durable and seem to withstand even stormy weather.
The first winter the Log Nest Monsters were on the dock, there was a massive wind and rainstorm, Andersen noted, much like the recent storm that left many in Metro Vancouver without power.
“And only one stick was out of place. Because I guess with driftwood… the air just goes right through them so they’re not forming a windbreak.”
Collaborating with nature and letting go of ego
Andersen can breathe life into his sculptures with just a few pieces of wood – if he finds the right pieces.
“I see these pieces of wood as kind of like gifts. The river is very generous. The Interior of British Columbia is very generous… Sticks could come from Prince George, for all we know,” he said.
Sometimes a perfect piece of wood, such as the one used for the body of the seal perched near the parking lot, will come to Andersen with a clear blueprint of what it should look like.
“The body was pretty much ready to go. I didn’t cut it, I didn’t mess with it, didn’t carve it. And in fact, the day I found it, I brought it here and an hour later, I found it was already on exhibit because it was close to being finished,” he said.
“All I had to do was literally screw a couple of flippers on it.”
Other times, creating a piece with what nature offers him doesn’t come as easily, like when he combined a few pieces of wood for the head of his deer after failing to find the perfect piece.
And from start to finish, Andersen’s creative process is very much a collaboration with nature. For example, pieces of wood gnawed on by beavers and other animals can be found in his sculpture of the beavers at work.
“(One of the pillars) is like a portrait of a human carved by a beaver. So, I see this piece kind of as a collaboration between me and many beavers,” said Andersen.
That’s the fun part, he added, collaborating with animals he’s never met.
And once he places the sculptures in Britannia Heritage Shipyards, it’s up to nature to decide their fate again — be it an occasional tweak with a gust of wind or breaking them down completely and returning them to the elements.
An artist’s legacy is often a part of their identity, their ego, but once a piece is sold commercially, they have to let it go, Andersen said.
“Ultimately, the owner is the one who will decide the fate of the art piece,” he added.
It’s the same with his driftwood art, which is exposed to the natural elements and can therefore go back into the river or just decompose.
Anyone can make art
The semi-permanent nature of Andersen’s sculptures also means they might get moved to a different part of Britannia Shipyards occasionally, which allows their stories to change over time.
“People start to create a little bit of drama in their heads about, ‘Oh, that piece is gone. That’s so sad. I wonder what happened to it.’ And then the whole story evolves and then it reappears somewhere else,” Andersen explained.
For example, the heron near the middle of the heritage site used to be feeding a nest of fledglings, but the nest has since been moved further down the boardwalk between two houses and become a commentary on how houses are essentially nests for humans.
In a precarious mission, Andersen and his friend had to use a plank to slide the nest, which consisted of around 100 sticks tied together with a string, to its new resting place to avoid the daunting task of taking it apart and rebuilding it.
“I find (the idea of narratives about the sculptures) appealing because ultimately we could even create a kind of loose narrative with the animals in how they relate to each other,” said Andersen.
And from the response of community members telling Andersen how much they like his sculptures, it is clear he has been successful in sparking a conversation.
Although he has officially finished all of the sculptures for Britannia Shipyards, Andersen hopes he can facilitate making art that is accessible to everyone, such as holding workshops for creating art using things found along the shore.
“I’m gratified that there’s a public interest in this kind of work, and I’d love to do more of it, show people how to do it. It’s not that hard,” he said.