Missing work by Saint John icon discovered in storage in Toronto

Missing work by Saint John icon discovered in storage in Toronto

The whereabouts of a major sculpture by iconic New Brunswick artist John Hooper remained unknown for years — until a little "detective work" uncovered its location and set wheels in motion for its return to New Brunswick, according to Hooper's daughter, Tandi Hooper-Clark.

Hooper, who was born in England in 1926 and worked out of Hampton, N.B., is best known for two Saint John works, People Waiting, at the foot of King Street, and Time Piece, near the entrance of Market Square.

Flying is a pine sculpture, 16 feet by nine feet, on a similarly oversized, whimsical scale, but no one has seen it in years.  

It was the last large installation Hooper completed before his death in 2006.

Fantastic winged figures

The piece was commissioned by the Prudential Insurance Company of America for its Toronto offices at 95 Wellington St. W.

It depicts a man in a blue suit against a backdrop of blue sky. Oversized, multi-coloured wings sprout from his hands. He delicately touches down with a single black dress shoe on a granite slab.

A similarly winged woman swoops in over his shoulder, her face intent. To their left, more people ascend on an escalator.

"It's a whimsical piece for a serious office building," Hooper-Clark said.

"When Dad went to see the space for the first time, he took the elevator to the top office and got into a conversation with the people there. They told him that people came from all over Toronto to work at the building: walking, on buses, on the subway and by car. Dad said, 'Boy, it would be easier if you could just fly to work. It would be more fun. People would arrive feeling happier.'

"They could land on a secret portal. And people would arrive relaxed, land, and go up the escalator."

Prudential "loved the idea and thought it was fabulous," she said.

Mysterious removal

Family friends would often photograph the piece on trips to Toronto, until three or four years ago, Hooper-Clark said.

"A friend went to see it and saw that it had been removed," she said.

Hooper-Clark's mother, artist Kathy Hooper of Hampton, tried to get more information and "didn't get anywhere with it."

In October 2016, her curiosity was renewed when the Hooper family displayed the maquettes, or preliminary models, for Flying in a show called The Private World of John Hooper.

Several people attending the show wondered what had happened to the piece.

"People said, 'that's too bad, you should find out where that is,'" Hooper-Clark said. "It really stuck with me. I wanted to know where it was and what happened to it.

"Part of me was afraid to find out — because if we hadn't heard anything about it, we thought that it might have gone to an art auction, or been donated, or destroyed, which was my biggest fear."

Detective work

Internet sleuthing revealed that the piece had been removed years ago when the building was sold and the lobbies renovated, Hooper-Clark said.

It was then placed in storage, where she tracked it down.

"They weren't too sure how long it had been in storage — between three and five years," she said.

Workers had run into problems removing the statue, which originally was brought into the building in pieces, since it was too large to fit through the door.

"The piece was designed for that space and it's a shame that it couldn't have been left there," Hooper-Clark said.

"It would have been nice to have known it was being removed. It's a bit of a shame that it happened the way that it did. We're really glad that it's still around and that it can be restored and seen again.

"It doesn't look like it needs to be any full-on carving done or pieces replaced."

Members of the Hooper family are excited to bring the sculpture back to New Brunswick.

They're working out the logistics of how to return the piece to the East Coast and an appropriate home for it once restoration is complete.

"I hate to think of it wasting away," Hooper-Clark said. "We'll be happy to have it back."