At the gallop: Joe Fafard’s Running Horses back where they belong on Sussex Drive

Joe Fafard. Running Horses, 2017 National Gallery of Canada © Joe Fafard Photo: NGC

The horses are running again alongside Sussex Drive.

By early Thursday afternoon, with the artist watching, a new set of Joe Fafard’s 11 magical, colourful, Running Horses had been installed by a technical crew working for the National Gallery of Canada. Work began in the morning and, one by one, each horse was carefully placed on their stands and bolted down for good.

This new herd, which is, in effect, a second edition of the original set, is made of aluminum. The first grouping was made of steel. Those horses were installed in 2008 on the Sussex Drive side of the gallery beside the driveway that leads to the parking lot. The original statues were left outdoors for three seasons of the year and brought inside for the winter.

Members of the technical crew move one of the Running Horses into position. The cutouts in the horse create negative spaces that form a layered effect. Photo: Peter Robb

Even that precaution was not enough to stop the work of nature. The gallery pays close attention to its collection and the conservators who maintain, repair and protect the artworks in the collection began to notice subtle small changes. A protective coating that had been put on the horses was darkening. And there were signs the steel was being affected by the environment, said Stephen Gritt, the gallery’s director of conservation and technical research.

A few years ago, the gallery decided something need to be done. And they turned to Fafard.

Originally “I had made each one out of a 1/4-inch thick sheet of steel. Each one was laser cut and then powder coated. Each piece was welded to an individual bronze base. The National Gallery bought them and installed them outside,” said Fafard in a recent interview from his farm near Regina, Saskatchewan.

“They requested that I make another set out of a thicker sheet of aluminum and powder coat them again the same way as I did the first ones. Which we did. Now the National Gallery is in possession of two sets, one in steel and one in aluminum. They will install the aluminum ones permanently outside. They will be there year round while the original set will stay indoors.”

As far as Fafard was concerned, the original set was still OK.

“They are more particular at the National Gallery than I am. They didn’t look weathered. To me they looked in good shape but I guess the conservators could find some deterioration. They wanted to ensure they wouldn’t deteriorate further so they decided to keep them inside and replace them outside with a metal that would be more neutral and tougher outside. Aluminum is that kind of metal whereas steel is an active metal that likes to interact and rust and stuff like that.”

The thicker aluminum sheets will also be more sturdy.

As Gritt explained there are other reasons why the gallery wanted a second set of horses.

First, they are very popular with the public.

At the time of the installation gallery director Marc Mayer said: “I love the idea of Fafard’s wild horses running along with the traffic on Sussex Drive. We haven’t had a sculpture in front of the Gallery’s main driveway in many years. This work is a wonderful evocation of Western Canada by one of our most beloved artists.” He is not alone in his affection for the works.

Interested patrons have regularly asked each spring since installation when the horses would be let out. That interest has prompted a desire for a set capable of withstanding winter. And so the gallery approached the artist.

Gritt said Fafard suggested using aluminum which is much more stable than steel and more able to withstand temperature changes.

The original set of horses also involved other metals. Each base was bronze and there was an alloy used to weld those bases to the steel horses.

“Different alloys have different properties,” Gritt said, and there is a risk of galvanic corrosion caused by the differences. The new horses are aluminum from top to bottom, he says.


Fafard told ARTSFILE that when he originally made the horses he did not have an outdoor installation in mind. He made them for a travelling exhibition of his work that went across Canada in 2007.

Fafard has been powder-coating artworks for many years. He’s got the knack of it. He understands the properties of metals and the limits of powder coating.

The coating is a polyester paint that is applied to the sculpture and then fired in a kiln at a temperature of about 400 degrees C. The dust melts and coats the object. This process is also used to paint farm machinery for example, But Fafard uses it to make art.

“I have learned how to use it in such a way that it has an individuality.”

Fafard is an innovator by nature.

“You discover things as you work. That’s just the way I do things. I am always very curious. And I am always asking myself ‘What would happen if you tried this? What would happen if you tried that?’

“So I try and eventually new things come out, new possibilities. I find ways to do things that have not been tried before. People who work in the industry of powder coating said it can’t be done.” But Joe Fafard is a can do guy.

He knows what heat can do. He started with clay, firing and glazing works in a kiln. In 1985, he moved to bronze and then he moved to laser cutting steel and now aluminum.

It’s the farm way. When something breaks on the farm, you better be able to fix it or you won’t get your work done.

“We have to adapt on the farm because we don’t have any outside help.”

Joe Fafard was on hand on Thursday when the Running Horses were installed. Photo: NGC

Fafard has two sons who work with him. He also has a nephew named Philippe Tremblay who runs Fafard’s foundry.

“When I wanted to go into bronze there was no foundry in Saskatchewan. I decided to open one up myself. It meant I could discover all sorts of things about casting on my own without having to deal with another guy who would tell you: ‘That’s not possible’. The foundry has worked out really well for me.”

The cutting is farmed out after the artworks are designed by Fafard. The designs are fed into a computer, connected to a laser that follows the pattern. Then the paint is added in a powder coating shop in Regina.

Fafard says the lads in the shop like working on his pieces.

“I provide something that’s outside of their usual work, coating farm machinery.”

He is hands on in the paint shop, he said. The paint is applied by an assistant but Fafard moves it around the sculpture to create the look he wants.

“I pick the colours. I know what they are going to do. After a couple of years, you know what will happen.”

Still, he says, “It’s always magical. You anticipate the result, and hopefully the results will be exciting.”

When the National Gallery originally asked for new horses, Fafard thought he might be able to try something new.

“But then I realized I was not allowed to do something different. The original piece they had bought was the piece that was required, not my new fantasies.”

Gritt explains: “We had interesting conversations about the second set of horses. Once he started to get into it he wanted to do it differently. He said ‘An artist can’t go back. I don’t work like that.’

“Our answer was that we had purchased the artwork at a certain point in history. … If we remade it as a new sculpture, we would lose something. The representation of that moment when it was added to the national collection would be lost given the changes that were happening to the first set.”

Gritt said the gallery regretted the changes to the original set. “But live and learn.”

The outdoor set will be good year round for decades to come, but eventually, weather and sun and heat will get to them, Gritt said. The original set, “which has been restored to the rich glow of its original appearance, will not be displayed outside, and will be good for hundreds of years.”

In the conservation department, Gritt says, “ethically we are required to do everything that we can to prevent the deterioration of the collection … and maintain it as best as can be done until the end of time.”

The irrepressible Fafard was quietly holding court with visitors and staffers Thursday while the horses were being installed. Much as he was in 2008. Before coming to Ottawa this time, he had opened a show of his work at the Mayberry Fine Art gallery in Toronto on May 12. Nothing, seemingly, stops Joe Fafard, not even a life-threatening illness.

“Last year, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I had to go through chemo and surgery and they removed my stomach. And then I had more chemo, but now I am cancer free. I’m feeling good, working hard and back to normal.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.