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Bronze sculpture tribute to early pioneers

By Noelle Grosse

Potato planting sculpture - WDM photo

By capturing a simple farm scene in a bronze sculpture, John Neufeld hoped to build a lasting tribute to the Mennonite pioneers of Saskatchewan.

Neufeld, 86, lives in Selah, Washington, but his roots lie in Waldheim, 47 km north of Saskatoon. The town was built on the homestead of his grandparents, Diedrich and Maria Neufeld. His maternal grandparents, Peter and Anna Epp, arrived at Waldheim in 1894. Both couples were among the groups of Mennonites who left Russia in the late 1800s.

Neufeld's sculpture, entitled "First Potato Planting on the Homestead", depicts a man grasping the handles of a walking plow pulled by a team of oxen. Behind him, a woman stoops down to plant. The sculpture measures 32 by 50 by 32.5 cm and is enclosed in a glass case.

"I chose the scene because one of the first things pioneers did when they arrived at their homestead was to plant potatoes, so there would be food for the winter," said Neufeld from his home in Washington. ""I thought it would be kind of nice to donate something to the Museum to honor my grandparents."

Neufeld was born at Waldheim in 1911. He was educated in Saskatchewan, before moving to the United States to study dentistry. He practised in Washington state from 1945 to 1979. Neufeld has been creating bronze sculptures since retiring as a dentist 18 years ago. Most of his sculptures are of wildlife. He used stories passed down from his parents supplemented by his own research to design "First Potato Planting on the Homestead". It took nearly a year to complete. Dr. Neufeld went on to make two more identical sculptures of the scene, one of which he donated to the Museum.

Neufeld says he used an old dentistry technique to make his sculpture. The "lost wax" technique involves making a sculpture out of wax and covering it in plaster to form a mold.

The wax is then heated, and "lost" from the mold when it burns up and runs out. Unlike most bronze sculptors, Neufeld has his own foundry where he casts his creations. 

Neufeld's sculpture was unveiled on September 15, 1991 at a ceremony at the Saskatoon branch of the Western Development Museum. He decided to donate the sculpture after visiting the museum on one of his many returns to the province.

Both the sculpture and the artist represent a common experience in Saskatchewan, says Warren Clubb, WDM exhibits curator. "In many ways it is a typical Saskatchewan story. The grandparents came here, homesteaded and subsequent generations move on, but they always have a fondness for Saskatchewan."

Neufeld and his wife plan to return to Saskatchewan this year for a visit. "Back to my old stomping grounds," says Neufeld. His sculpture is currently on display in the lobby of 1910 Boomtown in Saskatoon.

You might also like:

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- About the WDM Collection

- How to donate an artifact