Monday, May 23, 2011

Immigrant's first business was gold, his second was bronze

Armando Barbon at work in his Victoria studio. The Italian immigrant built a successful food distribution business before becoming a sculptor. His statues can be found throughout the capital. BELOW: The sculptor poses beside his latest creation, a bronze rendition of Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken. Globe and Mail photograph by Chad Hipolito.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 23, 2011


The doctor clutches a stethoscope in his right fist, totes a medical bag in his left. He is captured for eternity striding off to make a house call.

A new bronze statue of Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken can be found a few steps from the house that bears his name. Helmcken House, built in 1852, has recently reopened after being closed nine months for renovations.

Inside, one finds on display the leather medical bag from which the doctor administered medicine until his death in 1920, at the advanced age of 96. Outside, one finds a larger-than-life artistic rendition of a politician who helped usher the colony into Confederation, showing himself a shrewd negotiator by gaining promise of a railroad.

The $180,000 statue was designed and produced by the sculptor Armando Barbon, a businessman whose own negotiating style involved offering the monument as a gift.

“A lot of people buy yachts, or cottages, or whatever they want for themselves,” he said. “I just buy some bronzes. Big deal.”

Mr. Barbon came to art late in life, years after he immigrated to Canada and made a fortune with a food distribution company. He has gone from cheeses to chisels.

His bronze works can be found throughout the city — a town crier greets cruise-ship passengers at Ogden Point; a female athlete welcomes visitors to the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence; the late philanthropist Michael Williams invites passersby to join him on a bench on Wharf Street, where you can gaze upon the century-old brick warehouse he renovated to house a boutique hotel and brewpub called Swans.

“That one was easy,” the sculptor said of the latter. “I knew his face. I knew his smile.”

For many years, Mr. Barbon delivered food to the hotel, where the two men would conclude the day’s business by retiring to the pub for a libation.

The sculptor was born in Treviso, north of Venice, on a vineyard that had been in his family’s hands for more than 700 years. He was a boy of seven in 1944 when an American bomber, likely seeking to destroy a bridge across the Piave River about two kilometres away, dropped two large bombs on the property.

“Me and my cousin we were playing in the shade of the vineyard,” he said, the rhythms of his homeland still heavy on his tongue. “All of a sudden we heard the big whistle. Bzzzzzz. A big bang! Rocks everywhere. Stones everywhere. Half our chickens got killed and the (house’s) clay roof tile got broken, and the windows, too. We didn’t get a scratch.”

After the war, he built a plumbing business before coming to Canada in 1965. His wife, Yole, and their two young children arrived about a half-year later. He studied English and earned an electrician’s certificate. Yole found work behind the counter at North Douglas Delicatessen, a storefront business the family later purchased.

Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken
They imported meats and cheeses for other European immigrants. The annual delivery of grapes for winemaking was an eagerly anticipated event. In an era when even parmesan was unavailable at local grocers, Mr. Barbon decided to launch a gourmet wholesale business in 1972.

He sold North Douglas Distributors to Sysco Corp. 28 years later, by which time the family firm had grown to 250 employees, a fleet of 35 refrigerated trucks, and annual sales of $47 million.

On a return visit to Italy, where a sore throat cancelled plans to take voice lessons, he began studying sculpture. In Victoria, he bought a warehouse to serve as his studio, employing maestros with whom he collaborates on fashioning works in bronze and Italian marble.

One of his pieces was on public display for only a brief time. It was unveiled at the entrance to Royal Athletic Park during the under-20 World Cup matches held here three years ago. It depicts two boys struggling for possession of a soccer ball.

The faces on the sculpture, entitled “Battle on the Field,” are those of two of his grandsons. When the soccer tournament ended, the heavy statue was moved to the front yard of his home at his wife’s request.

“I like to keep my grandsons close to me,” he quipped.

He played barefoot as a boy in the old country, the price of a pair of boots too dear. Now he casts figures from British Columbia’s rich past, a doctor’s feet clad in bronze shoes, sturdy material for a march through history.

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