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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 4, 2020
It started innocently enough, Ivan Higgins was telling me Wednesday, as I sat on a bag of cement in a shed at Cosby's Garden Centre, on Route 3 outside of Liverpool.
First, he just made a couple of concrete sculptures for the garden they were using to display the plants they sell at their business.
“Then there were a couple more,” he explained, with a rueful smile. “Then it just kind of got out of hand.”
By out of hand, Higgins, 63, with a working man's build and a Montreal Canadiens cap, meant the 60 or so concrete sculptures, their weight measured in tonnes rather than kilograms, that are sprinkled throughout the garden centre, but are mostly found out at the back of the property, where wonders await.
There, if you have time to walk the 3.2-hectare garden, you will encounter a dragon — tail curled, claw flexed — ready to pounce, a man and wolf taking to the air, and a jester offering the visitor an unknown treasure.
In unexpected places, you will see a pair of figures crouched on a slumbering giant, and a man and raven in flight. In among the old growth forest, larger-than-life humans recline, seek cover, and stand straight-backed and heroic.
Hundreds and hundreds of different plants fill the garden. Higgins mentions 20 different Japanese umbrella plants and some 30 different Japanese maple trees, along with Korean furs and Japanese pines.
But he had to point them out to me, so taken was I by the sculptures, each of which has a wire frame filled with concrete, but still manages the kind of detail that makes them come alive, and tell a story, even if we have no idea exactly what that story is.
“I always wanted to make concrete look like it is floating,” said Higgins.
Motion seems to be everywhere in the sculpture garden, with the five figures performing the Brazilian martial art capoeira atop a rise in the property, as well as the acrobats performing handstands, musicians in full swing, and the undetermined figure, arms and legs outstretched like an Olympic hurdler.
But movement is most evident, perhaps, in sculpture he is working on now, a salute to the Cirque du Soleil, and anybody involved in the circus.
“The idea was to create a juggler,” he told me.
But Higgins has added other figures to suspend the juggler's balls. Soon, a few rows of heads, spectators, will watch the performance.
He told me that growing up in Wolfville, he had an artsy bent, which he had to put aside for 20 years as he raised a family and made a living. In 1976 he and his wife ended up in the Liverpool area to help her parents renovate a house.
“We had no intention of staying,” he said. “Next thing you knew, we had kids, a house and a mortgage.”
The garden centre opened 44 years ago, first as a dairy bar, then later a store where they sold fruits and vegetables.
In 2008, Higgins got the idea of sculpting a goat-like figure to act as the business mascot.
He told me that there were a lot of failed attempts before he had created something worth showing the rest of the world. By now though, he has the process down.
It's a laborious one. Higgins can take a year to come up with the concept for his next sculpture. Before starting he sketches the whole thing out. “If you are going to spend a month, or three or five on it, you want to know, at the very start, what it will end up looking like.”
If a model is needed, usually he asks an employee. Sometimes he has help mixing the cement and cutting the wires.
But when it is time for bending of the frame, and climbing around on staging hooked up with harnesses, it's all Higgins.
He does commission work — one of them stands in front of the Hank Snow Museum in Liverpool, not far from another of Higgins' sculptures, for the boxer Terrence (Tiger) Warrington. But most of his work, which is not for sale, is right there in the garden centre and garden.
Last year, an estimated 10,000 people visited the sculpture garden, some of them from as far away as the American south, not counting those who attended his weekend concrete sculpting workshops.
The first month after COVID-19 hit was good for the gardening business, Higgins said, because of all of those people hunkering down at home pandemic gardening. But since then traffic into the store has tailed way off.
They're still coming to see the sculpture garden though. The day before Higgins and I chatted, 30 people showed up to wander around back there.
Some of them even left a donation, which fittingly, is inserted into a concrete sculpture made by Higgins' own hands.