A message of peace at Woodwynn Farms

Victoria’s Deryk Houston donated two years of work and $100,000 worth of sculptures to create a giant art project he calls Woodwynn Peace Garden.

Yet the 61-year-old artist won’t make a dime on the sculpture garden.

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“The cost has been substantial,” Houston said. “But the main reason we do it is we love what we’re doing.”

The Woodwynn Peace Garden will be officially unveiled to the public 1 p.m. Saturday at Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich.

Encompassing more than half an acre, it is essentially two things: a giant labyrinth (Saturday is World Labyrinth Day) and a sculpture garden. The garden contains a $25,000 donated bronze statue by David Kocka as well as large sculptures by Houston, which he estimates have a total value of $100,000.

The Woodwynn Peace Garden is also literally a garden, intended to be harvested in the future. It contains 500 sage plants, 250 lavender plants, 100 blueberry bushes, 24 apple trees and some kiwi trees.

The construction was a collaborative effort. Houston was mostly assisted by his son, Samuel Houston, and his wife, Elizabeth Wellburn, a glass artist who’s contributed artworks to the project. Over two years, Deryk Houston has toiled on Woodwynn Peace Garden six days a week, typically putting in four hours daily. He’s also donated thousands of dollars of his own money towards the garden (he declined to say how much).

Why do it? Houston has a long history of peace-themed art-making. And he wanted to do something for his community — especially Woodwynn Farms.

“It’s this stage of our lives,” he said. “I’m 61. I’ve had a lot of good success. I’ve shown all over the place.”

Woodwynn Farms is no ordinary farm. Under the leadership of its founder and executive director, Richard Leblanc, the 193-acre organic farm operates as a therapeutic community for homeless people. Leblanc claims a 76 per cent success rate in helping more than 380 street youth get their lives back on track.

Leblanc said he immediately agreed to Houston’s notion of the Woodwynn Peace Garden when the artist pitched it.

“Absolutely. I like it so much. I said, ‘Deryk, are you OK with combining it with the labyrinth idea?’ His face kind of lit up,” he said.

Since 2011, Leblanc’s goal has been to create a therapeutic farm with 96 residents, 24 staff and a retail market, craft workshop, museum and gallery, dance studio, restaurant and café. Yet Woodwynn Farms, which has attracted its share of controversy, has yet to achieve that (currently the farm is home to just six residents).

Last summer, the District of Central Saanich went to court to shut down its operations, arguing that the property is not zoned for commercial or institutional uses.

Leblanc said this week talks with Saanich are ongoing. “We’re really doing our best, in any mode possible, to create and find peace here. Not only within ourselves, but within the community,” he added.

Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor confirmed discussions with Leblanc continue. As for the Woodwynn Peace Garden (which will be open to the public Tuesdays to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) he said: “I don’t have any personal thoughts on it at this time.”

Although artists tend to be an independent breed, Houston’s path is particularly unorthodox.

A Scottish-born artist who studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he’s had one-man exhibitions in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, Iraq and Russia. Much of his art has a pro-peace, anti-war message. His 2007 sculpture War or Peace... Those are the Choices was a replica of a giant mouse-track with a model jet bolted on where a piece of cheese would normally sit.

Houston’s work was featured in the National Film Board documentary From Baghdad to Peace Country. It chronicles his 1999 trip to Baghdad, where he witnessed the effect of United Nations sanctions first-hand. While there, the artist — who found the experience both disturbing and life-changing — created giant landscape art installations containing the images of a mother and child.

In 2000, Houston made an outdoor installation (similar to ones he’d done in Baghdad) at the Woodwynn Farms site. In 2002, he created the Hudson’s Hope Peace Sanctuary, another large outdoor installation, in Hudson’s Hope, B.C. Once again, the image — created in a gravel pit with a 42-ton bulldozer — was also of a mother and child.

Houston sees the new Woodwynn Peace Garden as a continuation of such work. But this time it’s “more about simply finding peace in my community.”

The site contains large metal sculptures by Houston previously displayed in other outdoor locations. They include Gates of Opportunity, consisting of two giant rusting spikes topped with chrome, originally from a site near Nanaimo’s Port Theatre. There’s also Sanctuary of Peace (metal spires that burst open at the top) that once stood at the end of Beacon Avenue in Sidney.

Smaller artworks can be found within the peace garden’s nooks and crannies. There’s a cluster of metal flowers with blue-glass petals. It turns out the petals are melted Bombay gin bottles.

“We did not drink all that gin ourselves,” said Wellburn, laughing.

Elsewhere, decorative posts feature inspirational sayings, such as “Dignity, respect, honesty” that reflect the Woodwynn Farms philosophy.

Leblanc said he’s pleased with how Woodwynn Peace Garden turned out.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “In such a stunningly beautiful setting with a therapeutic intention, it couldn’t be more perfect.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

This is a corrected version of an earlier story.

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