Moody Park will be transformed into a mini zoo for stick animals on Dec. 9.
Burnaby-based artist Nickie Lewis, who is best known for her large animal sculptures made with cedar sticks and jute twines, will hide 10 of her works around the park for an Easter egg-hunt-like experience.
The one who finds all the animals, including a giant octopus, a pegasus and a dragon among others, will earn a prize from Lewis.
The 'art hunt' is part of a string of programs that the award-winning annual Shine Bright New West event has in store this season.
While all the creatures that are part of the art hunt will go back to Lewis’ carport tent studio at the end of the day; a few other creatures, however, will remain in different spots across New West till the end of Shine Bright festival on Jan. 31, 2023.
You can find Tony the Slow Snail sitting still in The Hyack Square, Fancy Friendship Winged Lion greeting people at Tipperary Park, Cloe the Compassionate Owl perched at the New West library's main branch, and Misha the Magical Pegasus guarding Sappeton Plaza — to mention a few.
“We came up with an idea last year that each creature would signify a reason to celebrate the holidays. And so, to name them, I started by asking ‘What does this creature embody?’ ‘What is their reason?’”
Lewis, a fan of alliterations, then came up with names that reflected that reason — like Jinny the Joyful Jackalope, Gili the Generous llama, and Lex the Love Monster that are among a total of 12 creatures.
So what makes Lewis spend several hours — sometimes as many as 40 — to create these fantastical creatures?
“I really enjoy it when an adult can connect in a way that makes them feel young again. And with these sort of cartoony creatures, you can't help but smile when you see them. Even if you dislike them, there's some part of you that feels like a child. That's partly why I make them,” said Lewis, who used to make “big art” like a 12-foot pirate ship, oversized activity books, and a repurposed light-up bridal gown before taking to stick art.
Creating art in the woods helped with anxiety
Back in 2020, when Lewis had first started exploring the art of foraging sticks and piling them up to create trolls, dragons and fairies at Robert Burnaby Park, it was partly a way to make others smile and partly to help herself cope with anxiety.
”I still am a huge advocate for mental health, and I learned a lot about myself through COVID. I think I had convinced myself that I never had anxiety until COVID hit.”
For Lewis, creating sculptures in open parks gave her the opportunity to safely communicate with people. “I needed that conversation to cope with my anxiety.”
Though Lewis’ anxiety still remains, now, she said, “it's more of a journey of understanding how my anxiety presents and how I cope with it.”
The sculptures in Robert Burnaby Park — including that of a 20-foot troll that she spent 30 hours perfecting — were destroyed after they started attracting droves of people into the park.
“I had built them for the seniors that lived in the area; I never intended for it to go viral. But all of that traffic created a lot of anger from some of the people that lived in the neighbourhood, and the city as well because I hadn't asked for permission to build them. And it was doing damage to the park.”
Accepting the short life of stick creatures
Seeing all her art destroyed “really upset” her —not because she had toiled away, sometimes for over half-a-month, to create each one; but more because they meant a lot to many people.
"There were seniors who had adopted them and they would take people around and be tour guides. And it was creating a purpose for them.”
She had gotten hoards of messages from people who chanced upon them during their walks — a gentleman who was diagnosed with cancer just before COVID wrote saying that her art helped him get through the rough phase, and parents of a special-needs child told her that their child, who otherwise never left the house during COVID, visited the park everyday so he could see the unicorn that she had made.
“These messages are super special. And they're a big part of why I've continued doing it. To me, they are just these beautiful, sort of whimsical sculptures that I make. But to some people they're really important.”
Since the pieces are made with sticks and kept out in the open, Lewis is aware that even if they aren't destroyed by people, they would eventually break down over time.
Once they start to come apart, she either takes them back to her backyard and reuses those sticks to make something new, or puts the sticks back on the ground — sending them back to where she had picked them up from in the first place.
“I've come to this sort of place now where they're temporary works of art to begin with. As soon as I put something up, I kind of resign myself to the fact that it has a lifespan and that I can't control what that lifespan is,” she said.
“And I think it makes them a little more magical that they won't last forever.”
Find the list of parks where Lewis' magical sculptures are located, on New West City website. Join Lewis' Art Hunt on Dec. 9 at Moody Park between 5 and 8 p.m. The artist can also be contacted for private Art Hunt parties.