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Rust and rescue 

A year after dedication, the north end library sculpture appeared neglected. Doug Bamford speaks about recent improvements.

A kid stands on the roof of the Halifax North Memorial Public Library on Gottingen and watches the scene of a young woman helping a young man to the top of a 20-foot-high steel monolith play out in the square below. They are local students from Saint Patrick-Alexandra School, cast in bronze. They are unfinished figures, a gesture.

The steel monolith is engraved with words that tell their community's story---words that were donated by their neighbours, writers such as Charles Saunders and Shauntay Grant, among others. They reference the people, places and events that make up the neighbourhood's history---Africville, Square Town, Sisters One and Strong, the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, Mrs. "P"'s recipe for black-eyed peas and rice.

The sculpture is the work of artists Doug Bamford and Stephen Brathwaite, and was Halifax's only commissioned piece of public art in the decade that followed amalgamation. Named for a George Elliott Clarke poem called "North Is Freedom"---four lines specially written and etched in the monolith that speak directly to how the poet feels about the neighbourhood he's always called home---it was dedicated in June 2007.

The dedication ceremony was a great community celebration, but the sculpture drew criticism early on for how quickly it seemed to deteriorate into a neglected state, becoming heavily rusted, its etching disappearing.

"We were trying out a new technology for the etching---surface water jet cutting," says Bamford over the phone from Regina this week, where he and Brathwaite are now working on a newly commissioned piece of public art for the prairie city. "I knew right away it wasn't going to work, that it wouldn't be deep enough. It led to a certain amount of confusion about what it was we were trying to say."

And the rust? According to Bamford, the city was told to expect a couple of years of it before it settled down. The monolith is made of Cor-ten steel---a favourite of American sculptor Richard Serra's, and increasingly used for architectural cladding. Its high copper alloy content means it will rust to a point of protecting itself from further deterioration. The final effect can be incredibly beautiful, as the richness of colour on the south side of "North is Freedom" will attest. The problem, says Bamford, is that once the sculpture was up, the city forgot about it.

"The monolith sits on a plinth that collected all the rust. We told the city it would need to be kept up and cared for a year or two. They didn't really keep their end of the bargain, and people began to say it looked neglected---just like our neighbourhood."

Ironically, Bamford chose to use Cor-ten steel in part for the very reason it drew so much criticism. "The way I see it, rust is a metaphor for the north end. We're not made of easy material, like stainless steel. As someone once said to me, rust is us."

Late this summer, "North is Freedom" got a facelift. The rust was cleaned up, but not removed, as rust is just a natural part of the steel's aging process. The etching was also redone. An information pamphlet is in the works, and in the coming weeks it should at last be lit.

Not everyone thinks the changes are improvements. (As one local artist put it, "'North is Freedom' has great energy, and at its heart, it's about the community's overarching narrative. It was created with the best of intentions, and I think the tragedy is that while it's still a beautiful piece, it's a very different piece now.") But the city, says Bamford, has finally got on top of it---and just in time to see its first Public Art Policy pass through city council.

Until now, public art in Halifax has been defined by murals, memorials and markers. Bamford hopes the new policy---written in the language of a broader cultural plan for the city---will change that. "Cities are defined by their culture. The policy is not perfect, and it won't work unless the administrators know it and are passionate about it. But I believe change is coming." If Halifax is to be a city of culture, "North is Freedom" is going to need some company.

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