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Sculpture planned for Niawanda Park will pay tribute to Erie Canal history

The City of Tonawanda hopes to erect a 16-foot-tall abstract metal sculpture that pays tribute to the Erie Canal on top of the covered canal if supporters can raise $50,000 to $60,000.

The city's Visual and Performing Arts Council has commissioned sculptor Henry J. Schmidt to create a sculpture called "The Canal Remembered" that would sit in Niawanda Park along the Niagara River.

Schmidt said his design for the 16-by-9 sculpture has an abstract quality, with images of the Erie Canal's past – such as packet boats, canal workers and mules – interwoven into the foliage of a tree. He said natural lighting at sunset and lighting within the sculpture at night will affect the sculpture's appearance.

"You won't need a narrative for this abstract art," said Schmidt, who presented a 3-D rendering Tuesday night to the city's Common Council. "You will know exactly what you are looking for ... You are not going to walk away confused."

Schmidt and members of the Arts Council said they'd like to have the piece erected by September, if the necessary funds can be raised.

Artist Henry J. Schmidt and City of Tonawanda Visual and Performing Arts Council Director Susan Gregg hold a 3-D model of "The Canal Remembered," a proposed sculpture for Niawanda Park. (Nancy Fischer/The Buffalo News)

Susan Gregg, director of the Visual and Performing Arts Council, told the Council that this metal sculpture "won't be like what they have in Niagara Falls," referring to that city's recent unveiling of the controversial "Untroubled Waters" public art.

The Visual and Performing Arts Council, which sponsors the annual Garden Walk, is beginning to seek funding to pay for the Niawanda Park sculpture.

"We are not asking the city for money. We are going to try to raise money through grants and in-kind services," said Gregg. "But we wanted to make sure we have the support of the Council before we go any further."

Mayor Rick Davis, who has been working with the group for the past year, said he loves the design.

"We have really been trying to incorporate some art in the park to spruce it up," said Davis, who praised the design for incorporating what the park used to be when it was on the path of the Erie Canal with the park's current role as a recreational area.

"It's a great piece. It will be a beautiful addition to our park," said Council President Jenna Koch.

Schmidt is a Buffalo artist who works in a variety of media, including graphic metals, oil painting and charcoal on canvas. He designed the American Civil War sculpture in the Buffalo Naval Park. He is the artist in residence at the Buffalo Maritime Museum foundry, where he teaches other artists and members of the community to cast bronze. Schmidt is also a Roycroft Renaissance artisan.

He said it was through his work at the foundry that the Arts Council contacted him and viewed his work.

However, he said his proposed sculpture would be done in laser cut weathered steel rather than bronze, because the steel is more affordable. He said a bronze sculpture would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Schmidt said weathered steel creates it's own patina as it weathers and gets a "nice rusty reddish color."

"It has flat, multiple planes, but it creates a 3-D experience," Schmidt said of the proposed sculpture. He said after the metal pieces are cut the sculpture is assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"You can have a different view as you revolve around it," said Schmidt. "It's like the tree carries the theme of the park and the memories are in the branches of the tree.

He noted that creating the sculpture is labor intensive, so he would not begin engineering a model for the sculpture until funding was in place.

Schmidt said his design was inspired by the area where the sculpture will sit. The Erie Canal ran from Tonawanda Creek in the city of Tonawanda along the Niagara River, under what is now Niawanda Park. The city plans to erect the sculpture in the park, between the band shell and restrooms. Schmidt said a large tree in the park and the tree-lined walkways will allow the sculpture to blend into its surroundings.

"It's just amazing," Gregg said of the plans.

She said they will be reaching out to community members, service groups and state leaders for donations and funding. Those who would like to make donations can contact the mayor's office for more information.

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