Unboxing Toronto's great white squirrel

Sculptor Brandon Vickerd helps the fabled rodent return to the grounds of CAMH.

While cycling past the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health last week, I came across the freshly landscaped park at the corner of Queen and Shaw streets.

It’s got benches and trees and other nice stuff, but what really caught my attention was a cage that appeared to be hiding some sort of statue.

I poked my telephone through the shroud for a closer look.

Wait, is that? Could it really be? It is! The elusive white squirrel.

I’ve spotted the albino rodents over the years, but never have they held so still for a photo.

The white squirrel has a long history of appearances in the trees of CAMH, but they’ve mostly disappeared from there in recent years, migrating to the much larger, less construction-clogged Trinity Bellwoods nearby.

So this handsome bronze sculpture marks a glorious homecoming.

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I tracked down the artist, Toronto sculptor and York University prof Brandon Vickerd, hoping for a scoop.

He agreed to answer a few questions, but only after the project’s official unveiling earlier this week.

“The sculpture is a humorous ode to the legendary white squirrel of Queen West,” Vickerd says, “but also a monument to the urban myths and stories that knit the neighbourhood together and define its identity.”

Artist Brandon Vickerd and Cam the squirrel at Toronto’s Shaw Park.

As you can see, Vickerd’s bronze creature is many orders of magnitude larger than your typical branch-hopper. He explains he was “trying to strike the right balance between anatomical correctness and approachability,” not an easy task at that scale.

Vickerd gives us details on the work that went into Toronto’s latest landmark park mascot, nicknamed Cam for CAMH, and how the sculpture’s ultimate seal of approval came from Vickerd’s dog. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

How did this project come about?

“The Monument to the White Squirrel” was commissioned by the CAMH Therapeutic Art Program. They published a call for public art proposals a few years ago and I developed this sculpture in response to the desire of CAMH to use art as a way of strengthening connections between CAMH and the surrounding community.

My intent is that the sculpture provides a touchstone between all community members — something that facilitates social cohesion and conversation.

I see on your Instagram what looks like several earlier versions of this. What was the process of making it and how long did it take?

There were various stages and versions of the piece over the last two years. I began with making a series of small studies of squirrels, trying to strike the right balance between anatomical correctness and approachability.

Once the final model was approved, I created a larger version in clay which I then created a mold from. The mold was then used to make a wax replica which was cast in bronze by the foundry Artcast Inc.

Since the work stands as a monument, it was very important for me to use a traditional process and material (bronze). The final step was applying the polychromatic white patina and mounting the sculpture to the granite base.

The entire process took about two years.

Rolling a 1000 pound squirrel is a delicate operation.
#foundry #bronze #squirrel
October 11, 2019

Did you observe the real white squirrels in Toronto before making your artwork?

When I first moved to Toronto 15 years ago I spent a lot of time in the Queen West neighbourhood — everyone was talking about the white squirrel. It seemed everyone had a story about almost seeing it or having a friend who caught a glimpse of it running across a hydro line in Trinity Bellwoods.

The stories became a device of social connection, a way of engaging with a broader community beyond your own social circle. Although I never saw the squirrel myself, it amazes me the impact this tree-bound rodent had on my experience of Queen West.

What do you think the animals will think of your rendering of them?

There is a long history of representing animals in western art that tends to treat wildlife as the dominion of mankind, as something we must exert control over. This mentality has been detrimental to animals, the environment and humanity. It is important for me that when I use animals in my sculptures that I am pushing back against this mentality — I try to render animals with dignity so that they force the viewer to reflect on their own relationship to the natural world.

I like to think that animals could see this approach in the artwork.

During the modeling process I brought my dog into my studio one day and she lost her mind. The sight of a giant squirrel perched on a plinth sent her into a barking frenzy — that was the point that I knew the sculpture was ready.

You realize it’s only a matter of time before someone puts a mask on the squirrel.

I am expecting it.

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