When Syncrude and Suncor asked artist Jeff de Boer to create a major monument to salute the spirit of Wood Buffalo following the 2016 wildfire, the Alberta-based sculptor was not intimidated by the scope of the commission.
“It’s rare the clients have such a clear understanding of what they want from a piece of art,” Jeff says. “They wanted this piece to highlight the strength and resiliency of Wood Buffalo.”
His sculpture The Pillars of Wood Buffalo captures what happened following the fire. “It’s about optimism and rebuilding. It’s about realizing the strength of the community when it’s tested by adversity,” says Jeff, who began his professional career in 1989. “This is a monument, not a memorial.”
The new sculpture sits on Keyano College’s Clearwater Campus at the corner of Franklin Avenue and King Street in the green space at the front of the campus. Steel and concrete – which symbolize the materials of industry – are used to create the pillars. A centre pillar is surrounded by groups of three pillars, which represent different communities in the region.
Rather than viewing the pillars as trees in a forest or buildings in a skyline, Jeff sees the sculpture’s pillars representing a broader concept. “Trees build forests; people build cities. They both can do that because they are strong communities,” he says. “This sculpture shows balances between nature, city and industry that the region represents.”
Doreen Cole, Syncrude’s Managing Director, sees the sculpture as a fitting tribute to the region’s response to the wildfire.
“In the days during and after this emergency, as bad as they were, something remarkable emerged,” she said at last week’s announcement. “And that is the spirit of strength and resiliency that was demonstrated by so many people as we worked to recover, rebuild lost homes and structures, and move on with our lives. This spirit is what Syncrude wanted to celebrate when we, together with Suncor, were considering a community gift.”
“Today, some two-and-a-half years on, we now have something else beautiful to reflect upon, and that is the sculpture we unveil today.”
Public art is often recognized as a contributor to a community’s unique identity and sense of pride. “Art is incredibly valuable in creating a vibrant and engaging community,” says Shelley Powell, Suncor Senior Vice President, Base Plant, Upstream.
It’s not only a testament to our collective strengths and our resilience, but a visual reminder of the potential it has to foster our bright future.
“When I look at this incredible sculpture, I am reminded of how our communities faced extreme adversity with grace, poise and strength,” says Don Scott, Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. “In the face of unfathomable challenges, the people of this region grew closer together and persevered with support from our partners and countless individuals from across the country and beyond. The sculpture captures how we have been changed by this experience yet remain a strong, proud region looking confidently towards the future.”
Dr. Trent Keough, President & CEO, Keyano College, believes the artwork will inspire students as well as the community, while providing an important place for reflection on the events surrounding the 2016 wildfire.
“We are honoured to be the stewards of this public art initiative, and sincerely commend the sponsors of this project, Suncor and Syncrude, for their vision and for their continuing efforts to give back to the community,” he says.
The sculpture, like Wood Buffalo’s community spirit, will endure for a very long time.
“Part of what shaped this sculpture was monuments created by communities of the past, such as Stonehenge or the great cathedrals of Europe. Like those monuments, The Pillars of Wood Buffalo is built in a circle with different entrance points that lead to the centre,” Jeff says. “I wanted to leave behind an artifact of the past, something that would endure. This sculpture was built to last 1,000 years.”