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Among the kids and swims and car trips to and from ferry terminals, art and activism always manage to find ways to insert themselves. A couple of Sundays back, while visiting my folks. we heard that a number of local artists wee opening their studios for a little walking art tour of Fanny Bay. Mostly, of course, this would mean your standard coastal landscapes and wildlife watercolours, but it was a chance for a walk and something different, so while Mica took off on a bike with her cousins and my dad, the rest of us – mom, Megan and I – went for a wander. We didn’t expect great art and fascinating characters.

The route we walked took as its turning-around point a place locals refer to as ‘The Wacky Woods’. This four acres is the back portion of a place owned by Pat Help and George Sawchuk. George has long stuck little oddities in the trees behind his place – wooden books with interesting messages and quotes from various philosophers and thinkers, deer antlers, industrial cogs and wheels, old tools, commentaries on oil and machinery, capitalism and religion – and he’s cut trails through the trees for people to explore this gallery-in-nature. A favourite outing of the kids in the area is to wander through the Wacky Woods, see what’s new, and leave little messages for George in the tree designated for that purpose. It’s a neat spot, and, from the time I first saw it, one I clearly knew to be managed by an oddball character of some sort. But the open studio gave us a chance to go inside, have coffee and cookies, and get a little studio tour and alot of conversation with George.

George Sawchuk. Born in Kenora, Ontario in 1927 to socialist parents from Poland and Russia. As a kid, he attended a Catholic school and spent after-school hours and Saturdays studying Russian language and politics at a place run by local Bolsheviks. Catholicism and communism, then, provided the cultural landscape for his life, and remain the central images in George’s art.

After grade six he quit school and started his life as an itinerant labourer in steel plants, logging camps, fishing crews and more. He continued reading and studying Marxism on his own. Red political theory, a life of work and nature, Catholic schooling and active engagement in the union movement became the constants in a life that wandered geographically, professionally, economically. But as George read and studied and kept his communism, 1956 happened. Then 1968.

Yeah, 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But something more, too. In 1956, George was injured in a steel mill accident when a pile of falling metal crushed his leg. He lived and worked with the pain for years, until it was finally amputated in ’68, leaving him one-legged but painless for the first time since his twenties. He also began accidentally exploring art. With the first installment of compensation for his lost leg, George Sawchuck bought a chainsaw, and took to carving nooks into trees, placing into these small wooden books with simple political, spiritual, ethical messages.

George’s art is all about trees and tools; nature and industry; workers and capital; religion and state; sex and denial; desire and repression. A trunk carved out to hold a conch shell behind bars, a keyhole below, and no key in sight – The Convent. A hammer and sickle embedded upon a log, a crucifix in their shadow – The Trinity. An apple in a dark hollow – Temptation. A bowl of red rice, hammer and sickle as utensils, Mao’s Little Red Book nailed to the table – October 1st, 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China. An axe and broken shackles – Northward Bound. A cunt-shaped carving with a rosary on a keychain – The Bride. And my personal favourite, which George shows me while talking about the WTO protests in Seattle and the need to drive a stake through the heart of capitalism – a stone, a spike run through it, a crimson-painted hammer. The Red Hammer. Check some of it out on his webpage.

We had a good visit with George Sawchuk, talking about my union work, Meg’s union work. commies and radicals and shitty bosses and crap jobs for low pay. George is clearly in his element, the old worker, the old pinko telling stories to the younger ones, revelling in the attention he gets for his stories and his person as much as his art.

And so it should be. These are our elders, this is our history, this is a merging of art and sex and politics and resistance that is all-too-rare. There are many who stop by this place and just seem amused by this character. There are too many too quick to write him off as an odd relic of the past. But damn. I love this place, these stories, and this guy who is here and now and not giving up and never afraid to call capitalism for what it is. These are the people, the places, the pieces of art and life, that nurture and inspire and give hope.

Thanks, George Sawchuk. And damned if I don’t want to buy some of that art, something like the Red Hammer that is beauty and history and struggle and personal story all at once – that is art not for the wall, not for a picture book, but art to build a home, a garden, a life around.

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