Look up, way up, and you would have spotted their gargoyled faces peeking out amongst the cottonwood branches.
As mysterious as a UFO sighting at Area 51, the three bronze masks created by celebrated Coldstream artist Bob Kingsmill have been the thing of legend since they were erected just after the Vernon Performing Arts Centre opened its doors in October, 2001.
Many didn’t know the masks even existed.
“They were put way up in the trees and people weren’t able to find them,” said Kingsmill.
That has all changed as two of the masks have recently been moved to a more visible location. They now adorn the west side of the building, near the entrance to the Marie Fleming Hall.
How they got to their new home is a story in itself, one that Kingsmill, his wife MaryAnn, and Performing Arts Centre executive director Pamela Burns Resch recently shared with The Morning Star.
“It’s quite serendipitous how they appeared on the building,” said Burns Resch.
It all started when Michael Cade, the centre’s original executive director, wanted to incorporate public art into Vernon’s newest arts space.
And that meant for art not only to be inside the building, but outside of it as well, as can be seen with Doug Alcock’s metal sculpture, The Real Glitz, and Caroline Ramersdorfer’s marble centerpiece, Energy V, which both sit at the front entrance to the Performing Arts Centre.
“Michael wanted the art to become everyone’s work, so he came up with a plan to have Bob’s masks become part of a green art corridor that would line the creek starting at the north end of town and going past the Performing Arts Centre and the recreation complex into downtown,” said MaryAnn.
Those plans saw Kingsmill’s masks placed in a way where two of them would face a corner of the Performing Arts Centre, where one served as an anchor on the building.
The anchored mask sat at a vantage point clearly visible to the naked eye, however, the other two were “lost” when they were each placed in a cottonwood tree alongside the creek.
“The problem is that as the trees grew, the masks moved up and also got lost in the foliage,” said Burns Resch.
“I blame (Cade),” joked Kingsmill. “He had a concern for public art and wanted to make this place successful. He had a grander vision and wanted to go in every conceivable direction.”
And that was only the beginning of the mystery of the masks.
In the spring of 2011, one of the cottonwoods toppled from a storm, and the mask and the tree ended up in the creek.
Jurisdiction was cloudy over who could retrieve the mask (streams, creeks and lakes usually fall under the federal fisheries/environment ministry), but it was eventually “rescued,” said Burns Resch.
“From my perspective, certain mysterious forces retrieved the mask without denying any fisheries complexities,” added Kingsmill. “No toxic elements went into the creek by any mysterious sources.”
And even though many didn’t know the masks were up in the trees in the first place, the centre did receive one phone call from a concerned citizen upset that the masks had been removed.
“At least somebody noticed them when they were gone,” said Burns Resch.
That citizen will be relieved to know the masks are now back as staff with the Regional District of the North Okanagan recently erected them at their current location on the building.
For his part, Kingsmill says he is pleased his work is now in a position where they can be seen by all who walk by.
“I’m glad to think of the patina that is developing on them,” he said, referring to the darkened gleam on the pieces. “They’ll be happy where they are now and now can be more of a part of the public art emphasis on the city.”