By Deryk Houston
Can art change the world? It just might, discovers an artist, as he creates temporary hay sculptures to overcome his own helplessness and frustration as well as to bring attention to the plight of Iraq's children
In 1999, I sat with a very sick young boy in Baghdad and painfully watched as he struggled against the leukaemia destroying his body. I had travelled to Iraq seeking the truth as to why these children were dying by the tens of thousands under sanctions imposed by the United Nations. For several years, I had heard conflicting information about this nightmare facing the Iraqi people. Visiting Iraq seemed to be the best way to get some clear answers.
While there, I spent several weeks, touring hospitals, water treatment plants, schools and cultural centres and everywhere I looked, I saw a country completely destroyed. Never before in my life had I experienced such a deep sadness that settled into my heart. The mothers and fathers of these dying children quietly pleaded with me to tell the world the truth. I didn't know what I could do as an artist. The forces at work were enormous and I had little resources to work with. Who would listen to me? I felt frustrated and helpless.
During that brief visit, I managed to create a simple line drawing of a child by laying stones onto a grass field. Some children from the area helped me lay the stones. It was my last day in Baghdad and it was hot. Many of the children had runny noses and their growth was stunted from years of malnutrition. However, it was obvious that they were excited about working on something that recognised their struggle. My art had created a certain joy in their world for that one day, but it would be some time before I would understand and develop the spirituality that warmed my soul on that small grass field.
I returned to British Columbia, Canada, and started working on large canvases. They were harsh, graffiti-like works, listing names of those I felt responsible for ignoring the human rights of the Iraqi children. I was angry at the world for ignoring their suffering. I felt the same kind of frustration that one might feel witnessing Jews being carried off in trains to the gas chambers, where no one would listen to my screams for the inhumanity to stop.
After a full year, I found I had been unable to even touch the people I was trying so hard to reach. My wife, Elizabeth Wellburn, helped me focus on the one glimmer of hope that I had experienced in Iraq that day with the children, laying stones. I decided to look for a large hay field near my home. My idea was to cut the crop and position the golden hay into the image of a mother and child.
Two days of talking to many farmers, and trying unsuccessfully to persuade them that an art project dedicated to the rights of children would be something worthwhile to do, I felt discouraged. Driving around the farming community, I came upon Woodwynn Farm. The grounds and fields were immaculate. I felt a little intimidated driving through the gate in my old Volvo and when I stepped out to greet the farmer's wife, she mentioned briskly that the gate was supposed to be closed.
Shortly after returning home, the phone rang and a man's gentle voice asked me to come to Woodwynn Farm and explain my crazy idea for a hay sculpture on his field. I met him and poured my heart out to him. He said that trying to do anything with the hay would put the crop at risk. It had to be dried properly and baled at the right time, or its value would drop. One hay field could easily have about $ 5,000 worth of hay on it. And then, he looked at me, his eyes narrowing, and said: Let's go pick out your field. I was thrilled.
Over the coming weeks, we watched the hay grow in a field that measured 500 feet by 500 feet and anxiously studied the weather. A few weeks later, the hay was cut and dried. Elizabeth and I then laid out a grid pattern on the field using thin plastic tape in different colours as markers and hundreds of wooden stakes. I was joined by a couple of friends. We had to move fast and we slugged around the huge field all day laying out the grid pattern, stepping over the cut hay.
By seven o'clock, we were exhausted from the heat and humidity. I was starting to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew and that we were going to be beaten by time and weather. My thoughts turned to the little Iraqi boy with leukaemia and I continued laying out the sticks with flags that would help us move the hay into position the next day. The sun was getting low and on the warm breeze, the sound of prayer drifted across the beautiful valley from a little white church.
The next morning, we were on the field and completed preparation for the farmer to move the tons of hay with his tractor using the wooden stakes with coloured flags as his guide. The big tractor moved around the field in a delicate dance, shifting the hay into the long rows that formed the design. By evening, we had a primitive, mysterious drawing of a mother and child formed in golden hay. The next morning as Elizabeth and I walked around the field quietly surveying our work, we were stopped in our tracks by something totally unexpected. Standing in the silence amidst the moist hay and the sweet scent of wild roses, we heard the unmistakable sound of a farm worker chanting an Islamic prayer.
We went home to hug our children.After one year of unsuccessfully trying to tell my story in the media, this mother and child image in the farmer's field worked magic. My art project reached into the hearts and minds of journalists and opened their eyes. I was able to tell them about that little boy and the others like him in Iraq. It was a gentle, positive way to speak to people in my community. The story was covered on National Television across Canada and caught the attention of filmmaker Sherry Le Page, who proposed doing a documentary on my work. The National Film Board of Canada also loved the story and miraculously decided to fund the documentary.
I resolved to do another mother and child field art project in Scotland, near my childhood home. My son Samuel and I spent two weeks raking and moving hay in the large field. Working on these field art projects provided the medicine my heart needed, and I realised that other people reacted strongly to its healing qualities. But these images didn't last long. I often got phone calls from people asking if they could come and see the project but I had to tell them that the hay had been raked up and was now winterfeed for the cows.
The next step was to create a design that would be a place where people could visit and share their experiences'a peace sanctuary. I found a place on the flank of the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. It was a remote site on an abandoned gravel pit, overlooking a beautiful lake and rolling hills. With the help of the small community of the town, Hudson's Hope, I received permission to use the site for my art project. For days we laid out the thousand-foot design using the same system I had used in the farmer's fields. The plan was to move the hundreds of tons of gravel into position using a 42-ton bulldozer. I had been fortunate to find Phil Kirtzinger, who agreed to operate the massive machine for a very small portion of the true cost.
It was the largest and most challenging of my works, but again I felt a weight lifting off my chest as I created something positive for the children of Iraq. I knew that I could look those mothers in the eye. I had given their dying children a voice. There was enormous satisfaction in that.
After working on the first phase of the peace sanctuary, I wanted a sculptural element into the design. The simple, primitive image could only be seen completely from the air and most people could not do that. This sculptural element would consist of three rock-like shapes representing family. The tallest structure would be 22 feet.
I turned to the arts community in Baghdad because I knew that they understood how to make large bronze castings using simple methods and they agreed to cast my sculpture. I took a small model of the design to the foundry in Baghdad and set to work with a team of artists to enlarge the design to full scale. I spent three months there and managed to finish work till the plaster stage, ready for the mould-making process. Then the second Gulf War broke out.
Fortunately my friends and the sculpture survived the bombing and now I am trying to convince the current administration in Iraq to allow me to continue with my project for peace. My sanctuary is a place for people to reflect on their lives, their community, and how they might help shape this world for all children. I hope it will spark discussion and education.
I am inspired by the hope that children have in their future despite what might appear to adults as a hopeless situation. There is no such thing as a lost cause. This life-altering experience has given me the gift of many new friends. I have a greater sense of peace inside my heart because of the beautiful work they are doing and the understanding that I am not alone.
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