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Fine Art Meets Folk Art

The Canada Tree

by Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of Tyler Aspin. Tyler passed away on August 17, 2001 after what police believe was an accident at his cottage in Quebec. He was 31 years old.

"I'm not here to tell you what to think. I'm here for you to tell me what to think."
-Tyler Aspin, Creator of The Canada Tree
It's not really a tree, it just looks and feels like one. Its not a book, but it does tell a powerful story.

Once it was once a majestic red oak tree - cut down sometime in the distant past - its lumber used for shipbuilding. The giant stump was left in the ground to rot, its roots embedded deep within the Prince Edward Island soil.

Today the stump forms the base of The Canada Tree - the brainchild of a young artist named Tyler Aspin.

Tyler attended Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. His interest in storytelling and folklore was evident in his paintings and drawings from the very beginning. As his career expanded, he started working with wood and in time, people brought him pieces of wood to sculpt or to restore. He noticed as he worked, that all of these discarded pieces of wood, came with their own stories.

A few years after graduating from art school, Tyler was working in his Halifax, Nova Scotia studio when an old willow tree fell down at his neighbor's house. The young artist offered to remove it to his studio. He then replaced the fallen willow with a 9 foot sculpture of a tree which he placed on the very spot that the willow once stood. It was this act of giving his friend back something of his willow tree, that spawned the idea of what would later become The Canada Tree.

The idea was simple - to build a sculpture of a tree by using bits and pieces of wood from all over Canada. Tyler Aspin had a notion to blend together chunks of wood - red cedar, walnut, oak and pine - that would hold the stories of folks from across the country. From his studio in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he started on the long journey to collect the wood, artifacts and tales to mould and create the work now known as The Canada Tree. He put a call out to all who would listen. He asked for donations of items made or owned by individuals, to be sculpted piece by piece into a special work of art - one that Canadians from all walks of life could take part in. It would become a tree of pride - a sculpture to help recapture a time in history when story telling went hand-in-hand with personal items.

Soon after Tyler set out on his mission, he was in possession of the roots of a giant red oak tree donated by his home province of Prince Edward Island. These roots became the base and slowly, he built a tree-like form which he embedded with items that have a personal meaning to all the individuals who sent them in. Each piece donated is numbered and recorded along with a personal story.

The Canada Tree is now a magnificent sculpture that embodies the stories of Canadians, their character and their heritage. It was launched at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, on June 29, 1998 and from there it has traveled - and continues to travel - across Canada. As it arrives in each new town, the crowds gather to see the wooden sculpture which stands 35 feet high and weighs in at an amazing 10,000 pounds! The enormous work of folklore is assembled by Tyler and his helpers, in each city or town on the tour. When it is time to go, the Canada Tree is carefully taken apart, only to be re-assembled all over again in a new town.

When you look at the Canada Tree up close, you can see literally thousands of items embedded in the massive structure. There are bits of wood like planks from the Bluenose II, a two million year-old beaver stick from Ellesmere Island and a repossessed piece of pirated bird's-eye. There is a railway tie from the White Pass & Yukon Route, wood from an Alberta grain elevator and one of the last carvings of late Nova Scotia folk artist Harold Dick-Tutty. I spotted my favorite piece in the Canada tree high above my head near one of the branches. I looked up to see a carving of a face staring back at me.

Thousands of tales and memories are alive in the Canada Tree and as I stood in the crowd at the base of the tree, I listened to the comments. Every single person there found something of interest to them, proving that Tyler Aspin had achieved what he set out to do. By conceiving of and constructing the Canada Tree, Tyler Aspin devised a way for folks of all walks of life, to be part of a large national art project. Whether he set out to or not, he has made it possible for fine art and folk art to come together.

Tyler Aspin: What you created is more than just a sculpture - more than just a storybook. You are responsible for bringing people together in a simple yet incredibly complex way and for that, we thank you.

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Text © Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder; Photos Reprinted with Permission

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