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Horse Power

A Whitehorse sculpture welds together Yukoner memories.
II by Elaine Corden II
Arts, North of Oridnary~Fall 2011 (V5I3)
Rearing up on its hind legs, a riot of scrap metal now looks over the Yukon's capital city. Weighing over two tonnes and rising nearly 3.5 metres, The Whitehorse Horse, a new public artwork by long-time Carcross resident Daphne Mennell, stands outside Whitehorse's new Public Safety Building, at the top of Two Mile Hill. From a distance, the sculpture is all power and animalistic virility, a fierce protector of the city standing unbent against the elements. Move in closer, however, and the work has a softer side--formed with metal mementos donated from all over the territory, the horse is held together not just by precision welds, but by the memories and community spirit of Yukoners.

   By the time The Whitehorse Horse was installed on August 13, 2011, it had been two years in the making. Mennell dreamed up her equine vision when the City of Whitehorse put out a call for artist proposals, in early 2009, under a bylaw that states all new City buildings must allocate one percent of construction costs towards a piece of public art. While there were many submissions, Mennell's was the only bid that didn’t directly reference the Public Safety Building or the subject of public safety in general. Instead,

she proposed an iconic piece that would include Yukoners in the art-making process, asking them to donate metal objects that held meaning for them, with the resulting donations comprising the materials for her sculpture. Solicitations would be made in newspapers and on Yukon radio, and the contributions would be collected at designated centres across the territory. The donations could be small or large, public or anonymous, and could come with or without an explicit backstory. The idea proved irresistible to the City, and, in fall of 2009, Mennell was given the go-ahead to start canvassing Yukoners for their precious metals.

   A resident of Carcross for almost 35 years, Mennell's horse is not her first public-art project. In 1991, she created a commissioned work for Yukon College: a three-panel semi-relief inspired by the beaches at Carcross that hangs in the college's Academic Concourse. When she was awarded the commission for The Whitehorse Horse, she was already in the process of creating another large-scale work for a Yukon community: the Carcross caribou, which now guides visitors to the oft-overlooked entrance to the main townsite. 

   “I like to joke that I made the caribou so people would stop asking me about how Carcross got its name,” says Mennell, referencing Carcross's old name, Caribou Crossing. “I work at the visitor information centre, and people are always asking me.”

   Mennell jokes about the intent behind her public-art process, but, in fact, intent often plays a huge role in the success of a public artwork.

   “I did a lot of research for the caribou before I even made a proposal,” she explains, adding that she's spent over three decades painting Carcross landscapes. “Because I live there, I feel like I know a lot of the community, but I also felt that I really had to get it right.... When you're creating for a space like that, you do have to think about who is going to live with it. I know, myself, I'm very sensitive to my surroundings in that way, and something that's so prominent in its surroundings can really change the way people feel about a location.”

   It was on the caribou that Mennell first worked with welder Roger Poole, also from Carcross. Not unlike The Whitehorse Horse, the sculpture incorporated Yukon history and metal, with Mennell imagining the town's namesake animal rendered in scrap parts from the White Pass and Yukon Route railway.

   “I am so, so lucky to have found Roger,” says Mennell. “He worked so hard, and I think he lowered his rates just because he wanted to be a part of the project.

And we worked so well together. You know, you have someone who works in a trade, where everything is done in a certain way, and you have an artist, who is constantly changing and revising their vision, adapting and adding and taking away, and you think, How are these two going to work together? But we did, and I think really successfully. It was really great to see him get involved and excited about the idea of creating art.” 

  With such a fruitful relationship formed in the making of the caribou, it's no surprise that Mennell worked with Poole again on The Whitehorse Horse. Much of the assemblage was done at Poole's Carcross home, and, to Mennell's delight, Poole began taking initiative in proposing aesthetic decisions for the Whitehorse project.

   “We learned a lot in making the caribou, and Roger began to get more interested in the creative process,” Mennell explains. “The suggestions that he made and what he contributed to the horse's head were absolutely incredible. When I saw that, I was like, If I'd known you could do that, I would have done the caribou completely different!”

   Poole and Mennell may have been the star players in creating The Whitehorse Horse, but a cast of hundreds are due credit. When Mennell put out her call for donations, in November 2009, treasures began pouring in, with all manner of stories accompanying them. There were riding spurs donated by the relatives of an RCMP officer, from back when officers still rode horseback. There was, amazingly, a piece of the thermometer that captured the coldest recorded temperature in Yukon history (a staggering -81°F in Snag, on Feb. 3, 1947). There were infant spoons and a 120-kilogram cast-iron grill, a tangle of wires donated by a Yukon utility company, and a filing tool that once belonged to a Whitehorse handyman, donated by his son who inherited it upon his father’s passing. Some donations came with heartbreaking letters; others showed up with no explanation. The community newspaper What's Up Yukon ran a series on the project, with pictures of donated objects accompanying brief articles describing their origin.

   “I tried to keep track of them all, and I'd like to release the stories in some form or another one day,” says Mennell, who notes most, but not all, of the Yukon's communities contributed metal for the project. “But we don't have everything. Some people have even told me they sent things in that I never received.”

   Since The Whitehorse Horse's installation, donators to the project have been able to walk right up to the sculpture and find their contribution.

   “In some of the cases it was very young children who donated the metal for it, so I'm hoping when they grow up they can come back and remember that they were a part of making it,” says Mennell, adding with a laugh, “It's going to be there for a long time, for better or for worse.”

   So far, the sculpture has been receiving rave reviews from Yukoners, with even those weren't aware of the meaning behind the piece expressing their admiration. To Mennell, this is the ultimate goal for public art, which must transcend personal tastes on some level to serve its community as an object that inspires imagination, discourse, and a sense of belonging.

   “I remember with the piece I did for the Yukon College, this guy came up to me who worked there. I think he might have been the janitor or a maintenance worker,” she recalls. “He said to me, 'I don't know a lot about art, but I really like this.' For me, that's success. If people can relate to it and are happy with it, that's when I'll consider I have succeeded. Personally speaking, I am happy with it, and it's more than I ever thought we can do, and I know that Roger feels the same way.”  Y

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