Down a hallway in Ellie Shuster’s Edmonton home, the faces of Canadian icons emerge from plaster, their expressions reflected in photographs taped to a separate wall across from her workspace. A glance at the relief clay portraits, each three to four inches deep, reveals Justin Bieber’s iconic hair, Chris Hadfield’s recognizable moustache and Ralph Klein’s characteristic smirk.
Shuster, an Edmonton sculptor, uses photos as inspiration to create the clay and concrete portraits that make up her Oh! Canada series, with artists, politicians and heroes in the mix. Their faces, their actions and their legacies are provocative, says Shuster, and she hopes that message comes through in her work.
Many of the sculptures in the series also happen to depict Juno award-winning Canadian musicians, including two up for awards this year – Justin Bieber, who has five nominations, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, who has three. They will be part of a very exciting show for Shuster. Eight of her Oh! Canada sculptures will be on display at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium prior to this year’s Junos and during the awards show on April 3.
Shuster didn’t deliberately set out to craft musicians who tie in with the Junos – it was a coincidence that resulted from her desire to sculpt interesting faces with cultural significance. “In many ways, they reflect who we are as a country and bring their cultural influence to our national consciousness – from First Nations to French-Canadian, from the prairies to cosmopolitan and maritime cultures,” says Shuster. “And yet, it is disappointing how many have had to settle in the U.S. in order to become big stars who can reflect light back on Canada.”
Shuster began creating art in 2000, when she was working in a stressful communications position; sculpting was the relaxing antidote she needed to counter her long days. Since then, she has taught herself through practice and feels best about her work when it’s making an impact. Her newest venture, Life’s Echo – a business where Shuster creates sculptures of lost loved ones, as well as living tributes – has been especially rewarding.
The business started after Shuster made a portrait of her late father for her mother, who was incredibly emotional and thankful upon seeing her spouse’s likeness in clay form. “This started me to thinking: ‘If this was meaningful for my family, I bet it would be meaningful for other families,’” she says. She now has her original artwork made into rubber moulds for casting in concrete through Concrete Cat, allowing several portraits to be made from the cast. And she has started creating portraits that are also wall safes, combining art and practicality; people only have so much room on their countertops for art, says Shuster, but most have a spot on their walls to fill.