Peace Arch sculptures inspire new artists

Published on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 by Steve Guntli

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Five years ago, when Todd Gregory Hollarn first came to Blaine from Reno, Nevada, he didn’t really consider himself an artist. While he knew he was handy after 20 years of working in construction and architectural design, he’d never thought to try his hand at something more creative. It wasn’t until he and his wife first visited the Peace Arch Park International Sculpture Exhibition that the thought first took hold in his mind. 

“I loved all the artwork up in the park,” Hollarn said. “I guess you could say it motivated me.”

Cut to present day, and not only has Hollarn blossomed as an artist, but he is also featured in the very exhibit that first 
inspired him; more than just featured: Hollarn has three works of art on display in Peace Arch Park – more than any other artist this year and more than any artist has displayed at one time in over 15 years. 

The Peace Arch Park International Sculpture Exhibition has been a fixture in the Blaine arts community for 17 years. Christina Alexander, founder of the United States Canada Peace Arch Anniversary Association (USCPAA), said artists like Hollarn are a fitting legacy for the exhibit’s nearly 20-year history. 

“Todd started off as a tourist, and now he’s adding his own unique perspective to the exhibit,” Alexander said. “People who come to Blaine are impacted in ways we don’t always see right away.”

The exhibit was initially held in Blaine Marine Park in 1996, part of the celebration for the Peace Arch’s 75th anniversary, and was moved to Peace Arch Park the following year.  In the years since, the park has received nearly six million visitors from every corner of the world. The exhibit has showcased the works of 129 different artists, and has featured 187 sculptures. This year’s exhibit features 14 original pieces (17 if you include Hollarn’s “Strike A Pose,” which features four tube-steel figures that are available for sale separately).

The styles and origins of the sculptures may be wildly divergent, but the messages are universal: peace, hope, nature, anger, strength and love. The sculptures themselves range in styles and mediums, from the surreal (Yau Kuen Lau’s “Nurture”) to the highly realistic (Martin Eichinger’s “Seeing In The Dark”), crafted in bronze, iron, steel, stone and wood. In addition to the local pieces, artists from Oregon, California, Iowa, B.C., Beijing and Hong Kong are featured throughout the park. Several pieces this year prominently feature a butterfly; something Alexander insists is a coincidence, since the exhibit doesn’t have a specific theme.

“What’s nice about not having a set theme is that there’s something for everyone,” Alexander said. “If one piece doesn’t impress you, you can move on to the next one and the next one until you find one that you really respond to.”

While the international element of the exhibition is still very much a factor, this year’s exhibition has a stronger focus on local artists. Nearly half of the exhibit was crafted locally; in addition to Hollarn, Blaine artist Jesse McGaughy added his piece, “Stella and Estelle,” to this year’s exhibit, and Lynn and Steve Backus from Deming round out the Whatcom County artists with their cedar sculpture, “Giraffe.” Alexander said it wasn’t her intention to display so many local artworks, but she was impressed with the quality and diversity they displayed. 

“Sculptors who do big outdoor pieces like this are pretty rare,” Alexander said. “But festivals like this are starting to pop up more frequently, so more people are trying their hand at it.” 

The exhibition has struggled in recent years to maintain funding. When Semiahmoo Resort closed in 2012, the city of Blaine lost valuable tax revenue that had historically been used for tourism grants, including the festival. The exhibit lost all of its funding in 2013, and Alexander had her doubts that there would be an exhibit this year. The 2013 exhibit was pared down, from the usual 14 to 16 pieces to only eight, and the USCPAA had to rely on donations from local businesses to keep the show running.

Semiahmoo has since opened under new management, and while the festival has received partial funding from the city, the USCPAA is always looking for donors to keep the show afloat. 

Some of the artwork eventually becomes a permanent part of the Blaine landscape. “Nurture” might be recognizable to some from its former place in front of Umpqua Bank on H Street, and “The Spirit of Blaine Harbor,” the sculpture of a fish that sits along Peace Portal Drive, was once a part of the exhibit, until generous locals purchased it and donated it to the city. 

Alexander is feeling good about the future of the exhibit and the future of the Blaine arts scene. 

“I’m feeling optimistic about the future,” Alexander said. “In my time here, I’ve seen four galleries close. I’ve seen the state try to shut down the park three separate times over budget concerns. Last year, we lost all our funding. But we’re still here.”

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