Spirit Catcher never intended as childish tussle

At first, it seemed like a petty game that would play itself out. But no; the issue of Ron Baird’s remarkable steel sculpture, The Spirit Catcher, is on full boil, a sign of a shift in thinking.

When The Spirit Catcher was erected at Expo in Vancouver in 1986 it was the artist’s monument to communications. Much is written about its design and deliberate emphasis on First Nations culture and you can read that for yourself on Wikipedia and the Maclaren Art Centre’s website.

Summary:  After Expo, the Peacock Foundation (headed now by Chuck Peacock) bought The Spirit Catcher, donated it in memory of Helen McCrea Peacock, to the Barrie Gallery Project, long before the gallery even had a name! Housed in the basement of the former Barrie Furniture store, next door to what was Barrie Public Library, the gallery was a thriving dream–shoestring budgets, huge attitude. Maurice Maclaren had yet to donate his house; the City of Barrie had yet to extend its financial hand; the gallery was a dream yet to come of age. No building, no land. So, with city agreement, the sculpture was erected at the foot of Maple AV on the waterfront in 1987.

Comedian Lorne Elliot called it a Steak Knife Commercial when he appeared on stage here. Photographers capture wedding portraits with The Spirit Catcher as background.   Students write essays about the significance of each element of the sculpture.  The community embraces this symbol as “Barrie.”

Meanwhile Barrie embraced the concept of a local art gallery. They’ve dug deep into their pockets to write cheques, attend galas, support the reconstruction of the old library into the new Maclaren. The art gallery, in turn, has reached out to the community… children attend art lessons, people attend book readings, political gatherings, art show openings; people get married at the Maclaren (a lovely thought for Maurice, who remained a bachelor his entire life).

Official Maclaren opening day drew literally thousands of people to a public celebration at the corner of Mulcaster and Collier streets as the community embraced its new art gallery. The vast majority consider the gallery to be a municipal entity, truly a Barrie treasure. The complicated financial arrangements between gallery and city have caused great trouble in the past, and the Maclaren is sullied because of it.

I fear the Maclaren is adding more soot to its coattails with the recent denial to a sports organization hosting a major sports event to incorporate a picture of The Spirit Catcher into its event logo. It feels alot like a daycare scene when one two-year-old seizes the basket of lego and another runs across the room to twist it away out of some perception that it’s ‘mine!’ In the lego instance, there’s a calm, wiser person to help sort it out.

In the Spirit Catcher case the gallery appears willing to listen to only itself.  The artist himself (recognizing the sculpture’s ownership and his copyright) says it feels appropriate to him. Former Maclaren CEO William Moore sees its use as an extension of art to the community.

What I think is so sad in this whole issue is the self centredness that’s involved. Here’s a group that asked permission, and gets denied. Many use the symbol and never ask.

I’m one of the fortunate few with a working replica of The Spirit Catcher, crafted of the same steel and identically to scale, with the permission of the artist, and purchase price going to the Maclaren. It’s a treasured piece in our home. Now, suppose I decided to add art to my body and get The Spirit Catcher tattooed on my ankle… or my back? It’s amusing to think of the recourse. There is great opportunity here for the art gallery and the people.

People to art. That’s the Maclaren’s slogan. Indeed.