Do you remember Uki, the fire-breathing dragon that rose up from a man-made lake at Expo ’67? That animated metal monster, created by my late uncle, sculptor and painter Gerald Gladstone, was one of three major commissions he was awarded for Canada’s celebration of its centennial at the Montreal World’s Fair, 50 years ago this year.
Those old enough to remember Expo ’67 will know that it was a pivotal moment for Canada, as we proudly stepped into the spotlight of the world stage. Similarly, Gladstone was then at the pinnacle of his career, it seemed, with his Expo ’67 creations giving him international visibility.
One of the great buildings at Expo was the highly unusual geodesic dome created by Buckminster Fuller, who became Gladstone’s friend and mentor, and whom my cousins (Gerald’s children) called by the nickname “Bucky.” Another influential figure in my uncle’s life was the renowned British sculptor Henry Moore, whose sculpture, The Archer, adorns Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square and, along with the new city hall, helped prod the city into regarding itself in more modernistic terms.
In the late 1950s, Gladstone moved his family to London for several years, so he could work while studying at the Royal College of Art. While there, he persuaded Moore to critique his work at a local gallery, which Moore agreed to do, provided he did not have to encounter any art dealers. “I instantly agreed, although I had no idea how I could exclude the gallery owners,” Gladstone explained.
When Moore arrived, the young artist audaciously summoned the gallery owners into their glass-enclosed office, then locked them in, closing the gallery for 90 minutes, so that his time with Moore would not be interrupted. “We could see the gallery owners in the office, and they smiled and acknowledged the presence of the great master in their gallery,” he later recollected.
Born into a working-class family in Toronto in 1929, Gladstone began painting at age 15 and worked in his early days at an engraving house where several painters of the Group of Seven had apprenticed. One of a group of eminent artists who emerged in Toronto in the 1950s (others included Harold Town, Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow), he had a successful one-man show in New York in 1963 and returned home a much-feted conquering hero of the art world.
His public works included the Three Graces sculpture and fountain at the intersection of Bay and Wellesley and the McGillivray Fountain on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto; Reclining Female, a sculpture and fountain at Place Ville Marie in Montreal; the Martin Luther King Memorial in Compton, Calif.; and many other works across Canada and around the world. One of his most striking pieces is Universal Man, which was created to adorn the grounds below the CN Tower until that company peremptorily decided to dump it; Gladstone rescued it and arranged for it to be remounted in a parking lot outside Yorkdale mall.
Universal Man consists of a brawny, towering male figure with a massively imposing physicality. Yet it possesses a spiritual side, as well, since its upward-reaching movement symbolizes an energetic striving for something grand, eternal and forever beyond man’s grasp. A parallel dichotomy was also evident in Uki, the playful fire-breathing dragon, as dragons supposedly have a menacing physical presence, but rise out of the mist of primeval human mythology.
The imminent celebrations for Canada’s sesquicentennial remind me of our centennial year and the panoply of festive elements — from special pennies, to centennial sports arenas, to concerts — that so grandly marked the occasion. Included in this innovative panoply, for me and numerous other Canadians, is also a fire-breathing dragon named Uki.