Cross your hands, cross your heart… and celebrate!

It’s funny how one person’s generosity can affect an entire community. Circles, I guess that’s what it is. Certainly circles encircle celebration at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church these days.

St. Andrew’s is the birthplace of Out Of The Cold, that service of unconditional love from the kitchens and the hearts of people who want to provide a hot meal and a place to sleep for those less fortunate. There’s one circle of love.

Earlier this month I was sitting with a terrific group of business people at the Bell Canada, EDO Business Awards and my good friend Michael Bilyk was talking about a stunning piece of art completed by Don Stuart. Mike and Cheryl Bilyk have a number of companies under one roof and they do custom laser cutting for manufacturing interests. Working on one of Don’s pieces is the ‘fun’ stuff.

Michael was so vocal about Don’s piece that I called Don. “Would you meet me and show me what you designed and made?” I asked. “It’s at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and I’ll meet you at 9 am Wednesday morning,” he replied. So we walked up the stairs to the worship centre and Don ran ahead to turn on accent lights. Don Stuart, Barrie’s celebrated silversmith (what an understatement!), founder of Georgian College’s Jewellery and Metals Program, master weaver, winner of countless DeBeers design awards, Order of Canada, and on and on.

And there it is! A cross. Eight feet high, five feet wide, all aluminum each cross surface cut from one piece. Inside the edges, Don has woven metal circles together, creating Celtic influence. All brushed, soft hue, responding to light. And then additional brilliance. Don had each member of the congregation trace their hands. Painstakingly, using snips and bandsaw, he cut around the largest hand and the tiniest infant hand. Some from bronze. Some from copper. Some from brushed aluminum. Some from shiny aluminum. These hands, fingers interlaced, huge the surfaces of the cross. They start at the centre with the tiniest child’s hand and they work out, colour upon colour. As you walk back and forth, the metals change colour as they absorb and reflect light. The icon becomes truly three dimensional.

We went several pews back and sat down to take in the magnificence of this piece. And here is its story.

Don got the call before Christmas last year. Fellow Order of Canada recipient Arch Brown called Don to help celebrate. He wanted to mark the 50th wedding anniversary of he and wife Helen with something very unique, very special and beneficial to the public.

He left it to Don to come up with ideas. Most of us know that Arch and Helen are huge supporters of Georgian College; in fact, the design arts building bears their names. And some might know that Arch and Helen are strong members of St. Andrew’s Church.
He met with St. Andrew’s minister and together they looked over the entire worship centre of the church before everyone–Don, the Ministry Board, and the Browns–centred on the cross. After all, Christmas is Christmas. Boxing Day is the Brown’s anniversary. And the day after, December 27, is Helen Brown’s birthday. It was a fitting tribute to fine, living principles. The Browns wanted a celebration that would make a significant contribution to the church.

And then Don went to work, researching Presbyterian history, its Celtic roots, and then investigating cross shapes. He settled on the Cross of Iona, a Scottish Isle of Presbyterian influence.

The design took awhile. Construction took even longer. Don says that construction of this art piece took 225 hours not counting the assembly work at Laser Werks. There are 226 hands on the cross and because it’s made from aluminum and completely closed into its three-inch depth, the entire piece weighs only 100 pounds. The interior circles are all slices of thick aluminum pipe of various diameters. Don laid it all out, piece by piece, cutting the hands, weaving fingers together for texture. Behind the cross, encircling it is a brass nimbus, its halo encircling the + of the cross like a halo.

The cross was one of several pieces dedicated during a ceremony in May and Don installed it the day before, working with the church custodian to get its brackets perfectly placed. He had taken it to Eric Edwards, fabulous restorer of antique vehicles and Eric lacquered it to prevent oxidation and subsequent colour change.

Dedication day was perhaps the highlight for Don as he sat humbly in his pew, wife Jill at his side, listening to reactions as people came in and witnessed for the first time this incredible, new addition to their place of celebration.

Liturgical pieces have certainly been part of Don’s portfolio, his first for a Kitchener church in 1989, and another for Rosedale Presbyterian Church. But never has he completed an icon of such proportions and such impact. For Don, a commission involves two kinds of creativity. First, the creativity around the relationship that develops between Don and the donor. He enjoys investigating background, history, relationships to come up with concept ideas. Then there is the creativity of the design that results from the relationship. Both matter equally.

And so, thanks to Arch and Helen and their generous anniversary celebrations, and thanks to Don Stuart for his brilliance and thanks to Mike Bilyk for seizing the moment of creation assistance, the folks who sit regularly in the pews at St. Andrews have much to reflect on… the relationship of their own hands, intertwined and supportive in light, love, and circles.

If you’re interested in having a look at this piece, the church is open mornings, 9:30 to 12:30. Or, December 17 is Advent 4 service. December 12 St. Andrews celebrates with a mitten tree. Christmas Eve services at 6 and 7:30 pm. Take your pick!

Arch & Helen? Happy Anniversary. Happiness, always. And Don? Thanks.