When Lea Vivot heard that Jack Layton had died, she went to find some clay. Sculpting a life-sized likeness of the late NDP leader would be the renowned Czech-born artist’s way of mourning his death. She went to the studio in her 100-acre Kleinburg, Ont., farm to dig up the grey-coloured clay she had always used, only to find it had all dried up. Then Vivot, whose statues are found in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Prague, discovered what she calls her divine inspiration: the only usable clay in the studio was orange. “Only a higher force can commission the true artist,” Vivot, who has begun work on three statues of the late NDP leader, told Maclean’s. “Everything else falls into place.”
The statues are bound for Toronto, Ottawa and Layton’s hometown, Hudson, Que., yet neither sites nor payment for them has been secured. Vivot, after all, has developed a reputation as a provocateur in Canada’s arts scene for the way she installs her art. Many of the heavy sculptures are simply dropped off by Vivot and an assistant using a crane without the knowledge or approval of city governments or building owners; Vivot then asks for payment from proprietors, though not all have paid up. One such statue, Lovers Bench, was actually ordered removed from its Bay and Bloor location by the city of Toronto in 1979, and bounced around Montreal and New York until it was finally bought for $250,000 by Toronto developer Murray Goldman in 1991. In 1989, Vivot was also asked to remove The Secret Bench from its impromptu location outside the National Library of Canada due to the artist not having “gone through the right channels.” But a public campaign to have the bench reinstalled resulted in the Department of Public Works and the Canada Council Art Bank allowing her to unveil a recast version of the sculpture outside the library five years later. “It lent warmth and humanity to the front of the building,” said library spokesman Randall Ware.
Questions over who pays for the statues—which can cost Vivot tens of thousands of dollars to make—and whether her work has been commissioned have dogged the artist throughout her career. In some cases, the controversy and media attention surrounding her work generate enough buzz that art aficionados like Goldman are willing to fork over huge sums. Some have even paid upwards of $50,000 for copies of original sculptures. But Vivot remains tight-lipped about how she makes her living, and remains confident that “before the pieces are finished, they will have found their home.”
The Jack Layton project has some high-profile support. Vivot says that Layton’s widow, NDP MP Olivia Chow, called to lend her support to the “good soul” behind the project. The NDP “supports the initiative in principle and is grateful for Vivot’s tribute,” although it is “not at this time intending to use party funds to support the project,” a spokesperson told Maclean’s. Hudson Mayor Michael Elliott has also expressed excitement for it. The town, which is planning a new waterfront park in Layton’s memory, would be “delighted and honoured to receive the sculpture”—provided, Elliott says, Hudson doesn’t have to pay for it.
Hudson’s hometown boy is to be depicted by Vivot sitting on a bench. Benches, which Vivot says allow people to share the same artistic space as her bronze statues, play an integral role in her work. Endless Bench, which sits outside Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in memory of Morris, her 18-month-old son who died in 1979, shows two mothers watching children at play while sitting on a circular bench. The statue has become a Toronto landmark, and inscriptions from over 470 people, including Mother Teresa, Katharine Hepburn, Pierre Trudeau and Jack Layton are engraved on it. In October 1999, the 300-lb. bronzed mothers were stolen, only to be returned a week later after a public appeal and an anonymous tip.
Her Toronto-bound statue will have Layton riding a bicycle built for two, allowing the public to ride with him. “I can’t decide yet if he will be in the front or the back,” says Vivot. The statue bound for Ottawa will have the NDP leader climbing a staircase and sporting the cane made famous during his last election, which she calls “a symbol of strength and energy—his final victory.”
Vivot created the statue of Tommy Douglas in Weyburn, Sask., which Layton himself has called “a creative deed for the New Democratic Party.” She was the subject of controversy after the statue’s unveiling, at which both Layton and Douglas’s grandson, actor Kiefer Sutherland, were in attendance. Vivot was dismayed at the way the media omitted her name in their coverage of the event, and threatened to take the statue back and send it to Douglas’s birthplace of Falkirk, Scotland. Vivot says it wasn’t the presence of a celebrity overshadowing her work that bothered her, but that the media ignored her role, as well as Douglas’s contribution to Canada, and focused more on Sutherland’s visit to Saskatchewan. “I have no objections to Kiefer Sutherland,” she told Maclean’s. “It’s not about ego, it’s about giving the artist credit for their work.” The statue made headlines again this month, after it was discovered that someone had removed Douglas’s trademark glasses, but as with the two statues of Endless Bench, the frames were returned in October, before police had even begun a full investigation.
For Vivot, who says she is not a member of the NDP, what connects Douglas and Layton is not their status as politicians—“politics is about division,” she told Maclean’s, “art unites us”—but their humanity. Her decision to sculpt Layton is motivated by his sensitivity, admiration for the arts and boundless energy. “I want to make the joyful moment of his life last a little longer.”