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  What, Me Worry

by Paul Yanko
courtesy Don Hall
Joe Fafard

Joe Fafard is sitting on a stool in front of a double stainless-steel sink in his studio. He's washing one of his horses under a stream of lukewarm water - scrubbing it, actually, with a green scouring pad. Things are not going well today.

The horse, a bronze sculpture about 15 centimetres (six inches) high, was recently poured in his Pense, Saskatchewan foundry and studio. The patina, a green finish applied to the bronze to give it an aged appearance, just doesn't look right. And for Fafard, one of Canada's most recognized artists, that's cause for concern.

"I worry two to three hours every miserable night," Fafard says with a laugh. "You have to worry, otherwise, you can't motivate yourself."

Born Sept. 2, 1942 to a french-speaking farming family at Ste. Marthe, in southeastern Saskatchewan, Fafard learned early in life that nothing is accomplished without hard work. Parents and children alike worked hard in order that the family could earn a living from the farm. In his spare time, Fafard liked to draw horses. He admired their spirit and their partnership with people.

courtesy Don Hall
'Smoothly She Shifted': Fafard is best known for his amusing and ubiquitous cows.

"Great animals," he says, nodding his head in agreement with his own statement. "Great animals."

While he was very young, adults began to take notice of his horse drawings. Some told him he was going to be an "artist" when he grew up.

He recalls replying to one of those prophets: "That sounds like a good thing - what is it?"

After graduating from art school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Fafard taught university art classes in Regina for five years before a growing public interest in his work spurred thoughts of a full-time career as an artist.

courtesy Don Hall
In 'The Pasture', Fafard's cows luxuriate in the heart of hectic Toronto.

"It was a very exciting feeling," he says. "It got me thinking that maybe I had something here, if I just put all my energy into it.

"So I did."

On this day, "being an artist" involves worrying, trouble-shooting the patina problem and checking in at the foundry to make sure everything else is running smoothly.

As we approach the foundry building we're greeted by the muffled jet-like sound of what Fafard says are the foundry's twin, forced-air furnaces. Inside, I'm introduced to an assistant who is working with an exacto-knife on a small, cow figurine made of wax. We chat briefly before moving into the primary workspace, where we're buffeted by a blast of hot air.

courtesy Don Hall
A different take on a favorite subject. The piece is called 'Chicoute'.

"They burn at about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit," Fafard shouts above the din.

Two more assistants, looking like aliens clad in silver jackets and gloves, and peering through Plexiglas visors, prepare to pour molten bronze into a mold. They work quickly but carefully, pouring the flaming orange liquid into a form that will produce a bull about half a metre high. Fafard's bronzed bovines, especially his cows, are his most well-known works.

"We derive much of our economy from cattle," he muses. "When an animal plays that important a role in both our livelihood and our nutrition, they surely deserve some kind of recognition."

Fafard's herd has rambled far afield. Miniature cows graze the homes of regular folks around the world, as well as the homes of stars like comedian Bill Cosby. Seven life-sized cows luxuriate in the grass in front of the downtown Toronto headquarters of the Toronto Dominion Bank.

"I don't put any humor into my work," Fafard says, "I just don't bother taking it out."

Fafard has sculpted a wide range of subjects, including a series on famous artists he came to respect as he learned his craft. But the vast majority of his creations are rooted in his prairie home.

courtesy Don Hall
'Mon Picasso'

"This is the place I know and this is where I feel I can work from," he explains. "It's difficult to work from a place you're not familiar with."

1997 found Fafard returning to his horse drawings in a big way. Using as his canvas a 50-acre field near Barrie, Ontario, he sculpted winter wheat, corn, alfalfa and soybeans to "paint" a huge draft horse as part of a promotion for an international plowing match and a local arts centre. "The Fafard Field Project" grew into a 2,700-hand horse (about 300 metres) visible only from the air.

"It was a very satisfying project," says Fafard, flipping through a booklet of time-lapse aerial photos produced to commemorate the event.

"The whole community got behind the project. All the crops grown were donated to charity and it gave publicity to a small arts centre."

courtesy Brian Merrett
'The Inventor and his Invention'

Fafard's success has spawned a cottage industry that employs seven people full-time and one part-time. He considers his people a team, with members working together toward mutually-beneficial goals.

"This is a business and we have to be business-like," he says. "We've got to meet the payroll and that's a big responsibility. But it's no worse than being a small business or a farmer."

Fafard's works are priced from $90 (Cdn) and up. He was named an Officer of The Order of Canada in 1981.

But in spite of his success and recognition, he still worries.

"It's a little like making a living from gambling," he says. "So far, my luck's still holding."

Check out Joe's virtual gallery.

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