Screaming Heads monoliths major summer tourist draw in Almaguin

·9 min read

With summer in full swing many people have started their vacations with families and friends and others are planning what to see.

People interested in a unique and some may call strange attraction may want to consider heading to the Burk's Falls area, Ryerson Township specifically, and make their way to Peter Camani's property to gaze at his monolithic Screaming Heads structures.

Over the course of nearly three decades the retired art and science high school teacher has constructed about 100 of the sculptures that are spread across 20 acres of his 310 acre property.

The monoliths are made of concrete and some are 18 feet tall.

The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” certainly applies in this instance because words alone can't describe the Screaming Heads.

The heads have eyes and mouths and come in a variety of shapes and some look like they're springing up from the ground.

While the monoliths certainly have that wow factor people also ask why Camani made them in the first place.

Camani was six years old when he arrived in Canada with his parents on March 1, 1954.

The family settled in Hamilton where the youngster completed his elementary and high school education before enrolling at the University of Waterloo and later acquiring his teaching qualifications at the University of Western Ontario.

Camani said unlike his friends who were content with staying in major centres like Toronto and Ottawa, Camani was planning his life to live a little further north.

He arrived in Almaguin in 1973 to begin a 35-year career of teaching art and science at the former Almaguin Highlands Secondary School building.

He lived in Sundridge for the first several years until finally in 1978 the property where he now lives came up for sale.

It was a farmhouse on a 310 acre plot that served as a cattle farm until the last of its occupants had passed away in 1978.

To say the house had not been well maintained over the decades was an understatement.

“The house was basically condemned,” recalled Camani who was preparing to put in an offer.

“The windows were broken, there were bullet holes, water in the basement and plaster was falling off the walls. But I saw the potential in it.”

Once he acquired the house Camani began repairing and adding to it, a process that took quite a few years.

Part of the work involved what to do with the chimney which was in great disrepair and it's the work Camani did here that lay the groundwork for what was going to lead to the creation of the monoliths.

Putting his art skills to work, Camani encased the chimney in a castle-like tower that included a two-headed dragon with the chimney sitting in the belly of the dragon.

The Camani home on Midlothian Road off Highway 520 is not well travelled except for people with houses in that area.

When Camani completed the two-headed dragon, area residents took notice and came to see it.

Word of mouth took over from there with more people hearing about this castle-like structure and a two-headed dragon in the middle of nowhere and they just had to see it.

That included Canadian musician Wayne Rostad who by now was hosting the CBC TV show On the Road Again.

Rostad contacted Camani about coming out to the property and interviewing him for his show.

It’s that call that set the stage for the Screaming Heads.

Camani hadn't yet made any of the monoliths but that was about to change.

“Wayne Rostad wanted to do an interview about the dragons but I wanted to show other things that I could do,” Camani said.

As an art teacher part of Camani’s work involves painting and not to minimize the nature and quality of painted images he said “showing pictures isn't that impressive.”

“But to do a monolith that's 18 feet high and weighs 16 tons, that’s different, '' Camani said. This was October 1995, five weeks before Rostad’s arrival.

“I had no experience on how to make the monolith and I had five weeks to learn how to make it,” Camani said.

He succeeded.

Camani made the form that would hold the poured cement and when completed he stood the monolith up with the help of a local contractor.

The key was to pour the cement, which was a process alone that took 14 hours, while the form lay lengthwise 18 feet along the ground.

Pouring the cement into a standing form 18 feet high would cause such extreme pressure at the base that Camani said the cement would blow out near the bottom.

“But if the form is lying flat and I’m pouring cement into something that’s one foot high that's nothing compared to if it's standing and I'm pouring into something that's 18 feet high,” he said.

And that’s what he did, first filling the form to the halfway point, about six inches, then adding rebar to reinforce the interior and then adding another six inches of cement to complete the structure.

Once dry it was a matter of standing it upright and moving it to where Rostad would see it.

Rostad’s broadcast raised more awareness of Camani's work including CBC radio's Arthur Black who hosted Basic Black which had hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Camani made three more monoliths to prepare for the Basic Black interview in 1996.

From that point on more requests for interviews came in from various media platforms including one interview request from Pinewood Studios in England which had a series showcasing unique properties.

The look of Camani’s monolith is deliberate in that they take physics into account.

The openings in the monoliths like the eyes and mouths allow the wind to pass through.

If there were no openings and a strong wind hit the flat surface of the Screaming Head, the wind strength would knock it over.

“A lot of these points crossed my mind when I was building them,” Camani said.

The additional media exposure piqued people’s curiosity and more people arrived to look at the monoliths.

It reached the point Camani was no longer able to deal with the public on his own and he enlisted the help of his neighbours to answer questions.

Souvenir booths were also set up and they sold various artifacts like Screaming Heads T-shirts and Screaming Heads lawn ornaments made by Camani.

The lawn ornaments are miniature versions of the full-size monoliths.

Camani makes them from concrete, they stand 15 to 18 inches high and weigh 45 pounds.

“The souvenirs give people a chance to say I've been at Screaming Heads,” Camani says.

At 74 Camani still has plans to make more monoliths although the work is getting a little tougher as he grows older.

He confines the monoliths to the 20 acres while the remaining land is kept in its natural state.

Camani says people can take in the sculptures at their own pace and he said there are two monoliths he likes the public to pay particular attention to which he placed strategically.

These two monoliths are across the road from the main home.

He says when people first approach them, they look like two trees.

But when you begin walking to the right of the monoliths they merge to become a Screaming Head and walking still further right then turns the Screaming Head into a heart.

“It represents the heart of the forest,” Camani said of the two monoliths.

Additionally, people can’t see it from the ground, but years ago Camani was given an aerial photograph by the former Ministry of Natural Resources that shows how the natural terrain looks like a sphinx with the paws out, the head, ears, wings and the tail.

Camani has remained single all his life and as he ages he occasionally thinks about what happens to the Screaming Heads site once he's no longer around.

“I would like to see it become a national park, but that's difficult,” he says.

“It would involve an organization to maintain it and it would have to produce money so that means there would have to be a fee charged.”

That maintenance would likely include the artwork Camani has painted over the years, many of which are portraits of his former high school students and adults in the legal profession like judges and lawyers.

For now Camani doesn’t have an answer to all this and it stays on the backburner but he wants the public to be able to keep enjoying the site long after he’s passed away.

Over the years Camani has enjoyed meeting the people who come to see the Screaming Heads.

He says some came years ago as children with their parents and now they are returning as adults with their own children.

“Most who come here are in a good frame of mind,” he says.

“They come here to experience something. It's a warm connection.”

Although the grounds are open year round, July and August are the busiest times with hundreds of people a day at the site and 50 to 100 people can be on the field at any one time.

The Nugget asked Camani why he chose concrete Screaming Heads as his subject matter.

He says although the idea of Screaming Heads isn't new, during the 1960s and 1970s artists used metal in their work.

“No one used concrete,” he says. “So when I figured out how to make an 18 foot high, 16-ton monolith, how to stand it up and create emotion with it, it was something that was very novel even to this day.”

People interested in going to the Screaming Heads site can take Highway 520 in Ryerson and turn west onto Midlothian Road.

Drive for several miles and you'll know you’ve arrived when you see the castle tower on your left and the two-headed dragon.

There is no admission charge although there is a donation box.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget

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