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Gordon Lightfoot honoured with tribute sculpture in Orillia

On a crisp autumn day with his hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald playing in the background, a humble Gordon Lightfoot reflected on his roots in Orillia, Ont., as a lakefront sculpture of the singer-songwriter was unveiled before hundreds of fans.

Bronze created by St. Jacobs, Ont. artist Tim Schmalz

Gordon Lightfoot attends the unveiling of Golden Leaves – A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, a 13-foot bronze sculpture at Barnfield Point on the Lightfoot Trail in Orillia’s J.B. Tudhope Memorial Park, on Friday, October 23, 2015. (The Canadian Press/City of Orillia)

On a crisp autumn day with his hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald playing in the background, a humble Gordon Lightfoot reflected on his roots in Orillia, Ont., as a lakefront sculpture of the singer-songwriter was unveiled before hundreds of fans.

"When I found out they were working on it, I thought, 'Why me? What have I done that is so great that I should deserve to have a statue, a very artistic work done?"' said Lightfoot, 76, in an interview shortly before the unveiling, which was also attended by his wife and daughter and the mayor.

Figurative artist Timothy Schmalz of St. Jacobs, Ont., created the four-metre-high bronze work called "Golden Leaves - A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot," which is at Barnfield Point, on the Gordon Lightfoot Trail.

He said he designed it three years ago and got the funding for it — it cost about $500,000 to make — about a year and a half ago.

The sculpture depicts a bearded Lightfoot in his 20s sitting on the ground and looking down contemplatively as he plays an acoustic guitar. A wreath of leaves in the shape of a giant maple leaf artistically frames him. Some of the leaves depict scenes from songs on his 1975 album Gord's Gold.

"I was raised singing in the choir and taking piano lessons, and my parents were good that way and they encouraged me," said Lightfoot.

"I became a soloist and decided very early on that I wanted to be a performer, by the time I was perhaps eight or 10 years of age here in Orillia, and I'd already made that decision within myself.

"I could feel it."

The legendary troubadour said his parents loved Bing Crosby and would play his records, especially at Christmastime.

"I sort of got hooked on that. I said to myself, 'I wonder, is it really possible to succeed as a vocalist or a singer?' I had never written any songs or anything like that, I was not particularly brilliant with my piano lessons.

"But I learned some stuff that came back to me later on."

Monument is 'super special'

Lightfoot eventually left Orillia to take a music course in the U.S., but he returned and worked as a truck driver before moving to Toronto, where his career began within the Yorkville folk scene with artists including Joni Mitchell.

With hits including If You Could Read My Mind and Sundown, Lightfoot went on to win 17 Juno Awards in his career and picked up five Grammy nominations.

"Well, I still haven't won the Grammy Award either," he quipped with a laugh. "No, I'm just kidding. I don't care.

"This is super special, to have a monument of this kind. And the location here, the Mariposa Folk Festival location, where I do the odd cameo still and performed here five times over the years.... It's very appropriate."

Asked if he has plans to write or record again, he suggested he doesn't, noting his main focus is his family and touring.

"In a funny kind of a way, I really don't want to, because the responsibilities that I have accumulated for myself and my lifestyle through the years has been quite complicated. I have quite an extensive family and they require a lot of attention. And I'm not really under contract right now, so I'm just sort of taking it easy.

"I was under contract to record companies for 33 years."

St. Jacob's, Ont. artist Tim Schmalz is seen earlier this year working on a clay mould for his bronze sculpture of Gordon Lightfoot. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Schmalz, who has created large public monuments and religious sculptures for sites around the world, said he was thrilled to work on a Lightfoot piece.

"I grew up loving Gordon Lightfoot. This was music that was omnipresent in my studio. I can't tell you how many sculptures I actually created with Gordon Lightfoot in the background. And now, Gordon Lightfoot's in the foreground," Schmalz said.

The sculpture was gifted to the City of Orillia by the Rudolph P. Bratty Family Foundation.

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