When Al Stinson learned concrete bison heads from Calgary’s Centre Street Bridge were up for auction, he figured prospective buyers might want to know a bit more about the heads’ provenance.
They weren’t sculpted by James L. Thompson, a stonemason who crafted the original heads when the bridge was first built in 1916.
And, he thought buyers might want to know that the heads likely weigh hundreds of pounds less than auctioneer’s estimations — “I thought, well, if somebody is contemplating bidding on them, you know, [an estimated one-tonne weight is] a little bit of a deterrent,” Stinson said.
Stinson would know; he made them.
Before the Calgary landmark was restored in 1983, Stinson — who had studied for a few years at what was then Calgary’s Alberta College of Art and Design before teaching figure sculpture in England — was hired to recast the crumbling heads.
“The guy who hired me asked me what I charge, and I was pretty naive and I said $2,000 ($4,600 in 2020). So that was eight of them, so like $250 a-piece,” he said.
Stinson said he would sit outside of the bison paddock at the Calgary Zoo, snapping photos of the bull bison while working on a small clay maquette to take back to his studio.
“He was quite cooperative, hanging about as I fed him grass through the fence,” he said.
Using that small figure, he made a life-sized clay model before casting the heads using rubber molds and a type of polymer concrete. The inside was styrofoam core, to help reduce the weight, with pieces of rebar to help with installation. All-in-all, it was about four months of full-time work.
When the bridge restoration was unveiled, there was no big fanfare for Stinson’s work, which he said was fine by him.
“My oldest daughter … I just remember carrying her down to see when they were installed,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being kind of anonymous.”
Stinson’s sculptures remained on the bridge until 1999 when they were replaced with new recreations. But a piece of his work remains — he had added arcs, to the concrete panel behind his heads, to accommodate the bisons’ humps. That change survived the restoration.
Correcting the record
Looking back at articles from the time, Stinson’s preference to keep a low profile is apparent.
In Feb. 5, 1983, the Calgary Herald published an article about how the aging bridge and bison heads required serious repair. It states the original sculptor’s identity was “lost over time” but that a new, unnamed sculptor, would be patching up the old heads, not completely remaking them.
The front page of the Herald on Aug. 17, 1983, features the installation of the eight new bison heads — with credit to the engineering team of Roy Lappin, Terrence Smith and Kevin Donohue mounting the art — but no mention of the new artist. And an Oct. 7 article from the same year describes the $50,000 bridge repair project but credits all of the sculptures to James L. Thompson’s original work — next to an uncaptioned photo of one of Stinson’s new bison heads.
A letter to the editor, appearing on page A6 a few weeks later, notes that the paper neglected to credit Stinson as the sculptor.
“Let’s give some recognition to Al — and artists like him — whose contributions are as important as those by the engineers and city planners in making our concrete cities attractive and pleasing,” wrote Leslie Robinson in the 1983 letter.
Stinson said he kept copies of those articles. “I never contacted them at that time to straighten up their facts,” he said with a laugh.
But now, decades later, he’s correcting the record. CBC has updated its first story on the bison head auction to credit Stinson as the artist.
The 70-year-old is still sculpting and has recently taken up painting. The bison heads aren’t the only pieces of his public work Calgarians might recognize.
He has six installations at the Calgary airport in front of the ticket counters of cyclists, mountain climbers Georgia Englehard and Edward Feuz in 1932, a canoer, snowboarder and tobogganers. In the international departure zone, you’ll find his depiction of children flying kites — based on his daughter, her friend and kitten.
While much of his work depicts people, he said bison were a wonderful subject — “they run with such relentless rolling energy, like an avalanche.”
It remains to be seen where Stinson’s bison will end up.
Private appointments can be booked through Levis Online Auctions to view the Centre Street bison at an undisclosed city location. Bids can be made online, with the auction set to close on April 18.