In Gord We Trust, Head to Toe

<strong>Jowi</strong> and <em>Voyageur</em> with milliner <strong>Karyn Ruiz</strong> and cobbler <strong>Jeff Churchill</strong> Probably since the first time Voyageur appeared in public, people have been suggesting materials to add to it. Of course, there is no adding to Voyageur itself - it's a finished work of art. But there are small amounts of real estate in the case and on the strap where we can add very small, very special bits of the big wide Canadian story - the question is: given that finite amount of space, what do we decide to accept or pursue?

I cannot tell you the number of people who suggest: "You should get something from Gordon Lightfoot...You should get something from Joni Mitchell...You should get something from Neil Young... You should get something from Rush....etc. etc. etc. I've got a few issues with these ideas:
1. As a guitar, Voyageur ends up representing all of those artists over and over again already by the sheer number of people who choose to play music by those artists when presented with the opportunity to play Voyageur;
2. The whole point of the project is to expand the palette of colours we use to paint the picture of Canada. Those artists are already well recognized so I'd want to make sure lesser known artists were also included. And there would be no satisfying me or anybody else if everyone's favourite artists weren't included - by which time it would be a whole other project that became simply a tribute to musicians and not a vessel for storytelling;
3. The very best way - the richest, most robust, most meaningful way - that musicians become part of the fabric of the project is by playing it themselves or by having others play their music on Voyageur. That's why it's a guitar - so that it can really live and communicate in that way and that's the area where Canada's music artists excel, in that art that is a whole other kind of storytelling that combines with the stories of the guitar so that something truly unique and remarkable is borne of that collaboration.
4. I deliberately chose to represent musicians in the project more by including the places where they have played - materials still humming with the vibrations of a million and one performances: the pieces of Massey Hall in Toronto, the Theatre Capitole in Quebec City and J.R.'s bar in Charlottetown. Each of these places is of significance on its own and together they stand for the venues across the country where musicians have honed their craft and found their audiences.

Having said all that, I decided last year that there is one Canadian musician for whom I would make an exception to this no-musicians-represented-in-Voyageur's-components rule: Gord Downie. And that's not because I believe the Tragically Hip's music towers above all other Canadian music but because of what Gord Downie galvanized in so many Canadians and in the way he chose to live that last year of his life - with such courage, such love, such purpose, such generosity, such commitment, such creativity and such ferocious hope that Canadians would walk the difficult but ultimately rewarding path toward Reconciliation with Canada's indigenous people - a hope that is baked into the idea of the Six String Nation as well.

So it was fortuitous that Kim Gill a teacher whom I'd met years ago at an educator's retreat in Algonquin Park - approached me at an Elementary Teachers' Federation event in Waterloo Region back in November with an extraordinary offer. Kim had purchased a fundraising souvenir for the "Courage For Gord" initiative for brain cancer research at Sunnybrook consisting of seven guitar-shaped key fobs adorned with small swatches of fabric taken from each of seven different coloured metallic leather suits designed by Izzy Camilleri and worn by Gord Downie during the Hip's farewell "Man Machine Poem" cross-Canada tour in 2016. (Smaller fragments of those swatches are the scattered colours you see on the face of the felt-and-feather figure on the left of the photo above). Kim had run the idea past Mike and Patrick Downie to see if they thought a donation to Six String Nation would be suitable and they gave their blessing.

Of course, getting the fabric is one thing but where do we put it on the case or strap and what form does it take and who do we get to do that work? For me, there was only one answer: Karyn Ruiz (pictured, left). Karyn has been a friend for nearly 20 years. She is a tremendously talented artist in the field of millinery - hat-making. Her creations have appeared in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair and on the heads of clients famous and not-so-famous all over the world. She also made Gord Downie's signature hats for that final tour. When I called to ask if she would consider handling the task of making something beautiful with Kim's donation, in true Canadian fashion she told me that she had wanted to offer me something from Gord's hats for Six String Nation but didn't want to appear self-important. So not only did she agree to take the job, she also offered to incorporate some felt and feathers (also seen in the assembly at the left of the photo) from the Gord materials left in the workshop. The only catch, she warned, was that her equipment did not include the kind of machine that would be capable of affixing whatever she made onto the thick Levy Leather guitar strap. However, she knew just the person to handle that part of things - another friend I'd met at a Tragically Hip-themed party at Karyn's last year named Jeff Churchill (pictured, right). Jeff is a world-renowned cobbler whose shoes you likely saw in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" and will soon see on the feet of Dame Judi Dench in an upcoming film. He also happened to make Gord Downie's shoes for that final Hip tour and offered to incorporate some test cuts of heel and sole leather - the former stamped with the Tragically Hip logo and the latter emblazoned with the lyrics to the Hip's "Ahead by a Century". We all met just a few weeks ago to look at what might work where and talked through some options. I took some pictures of the raw materials - including the fragments taken from Kim's keychain souvenirs - and then left the strap in their capable hands.

This past Sunday we gathered together at Karyn's place to watch the Academy Awards and there Jeff handed me the finished product. I was overwhelmed with how perfectly it all turned out. Karyn's evocatively human assembly was affixed on the front of the strap above the piece from the Vancouver Asahi baseball jersey and the shoe leathers were affixed at the back - almost seeming to step out of the late singer-songwriter Taylor Mitchell's cowboy boot toward the late Myle's Neuts' wool cap (toe-to-head, as it were). We revealed the results yesterday for the very first time in a spectacular setting and that will be the subject of the next blog entry.

Thanks again to Kim Gill, Izzy Camilleri, Karyn Ruiz and Jeff Churchill. Thanks also to Sarah Gillett and Fernando Ruiz. And, of course, thanks to Gord Downie for the inspiration you sparked in all of us in so many different ways.

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