100 faces, 100 years: Bronze memorial to fallen soldiers unveiled

An installation made from facial casts of First World War soldiers' descendants was dedicated Sunday at Victoria Park.

'100 Portraits of the Great War' captures the faces of living descendants of Newfoundland Regiment soldiers

An installation opened in honour of First World War veterans in Victoria Park on Sunday. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

It took five years and vats of molten bronze, but Sunday's unveiling of St. John's newest war memorial was worth the effort — for both the artist and the 100 others who helped put it together.

"This is not a traditional piece," artist Morgan MacDonald said, speaking to supporters in Victoria Park at the unveiling of 100 Portraits of the Great War.

Behind him, the memorial rises up, a monument to those who put their lives on the line a century ago.

But the images on display capture the living, not the dead. 

Artist Morgan MacDonald says the memory of his own grandfather compelled him to create a piece honouring First World War veterans. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Cast from the faces of 100 descendants of Newfoundland Regiment soldiers who fought in the First World War, the installation is a kind of "living memory" featuring the families who have carried pain, loss, and pride throughout the last century. 

After casting each volunteer, MacDonald arranged the bronze effigies, some flashing small smiles or furrowing their brows, others appearing pained or meditative as they remember their ancestors.

MacDonald's volunteers showed up at the unveiling with portraits of their ancestors. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

MacDonald then welded the casts to an oval frame reminiscent of antique war portraits.

"Many of these portraits hang across mantles, kitchen tables, and legions around the inlets and bays of this province," MacDonald said.  

"For me, it's the memory of my grandfather," he said.

The image is enshrined in the family's Eastport home.

Community effort

MacDonald believes it's the largest bronze installation in the province — and it could have been bigger, had there been space.

"It was like lighting a match in a tinder box," he said. "It was very easy to find volunteers. The hard part was actually telling people, 'Sorry, all the spaces are taken up.'"

Volunteers were asked to cover their hairlines with Vaseline and remain still while the casting material hardened. 

Mark Critch, honorary chair of the Victoria Park Foundation, hopes the installation has found a suitable home in the downtown park, where the regiment used to gather after the war. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"It's not for the faint of heart. We're literally taking goo — alginate, if anyone's gone to the dentist and had an impression of their teeth, it's the same material — they have to breathe through a straw and wait for it to set."

Mark Critch, honorary chair of the Victoria Park Foundation, called the installation a "jewel in the crown" of the downtown green space.

"We begged him for the piece," Critch said. "We didn't have a plan for a sculpture or a statue, but when we heard that this piece was available, we knew it was so important to the park. The regiment would gather here often." 

Living memory

For MacDonald, the project was simply a collection of stories that needed to be told — tales of the war he'd hear from friends and neighbours.

Jeanette Jobson offered MacDonald her own family's story, sitting for his project in memory of her great uncle, Gordon Bastow, who was pronounced missing in action after the war. 

Jeannette Jobson says the memorial doesn't erase the horror of the war, but provides some degree of closure. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Jobson said his disappearance remained a mystery until she went back through records, finally uncovering Bastow's fate.

"He was killed by a shell, and there was no body to be found," she said, holding his framed portrait. "At just 22, I'm sure for many years they expected it to all be a horrible mistake, and he would walk through the door."

MacDonald says it was a moving experience for so many volunteers to stand in for their loved ones.

"I think it's incredibly special to have a placeholder and a location, so they can come and reflect on that memory."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador