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Dawson art project is one for the record books

‘There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun.” The giant jigsaw puzzle being assembled in Dawson City is surely one of…

‘There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun.” The giant jigsaw puzzle being assembled in Dawson City is surely one of them.

“Strange” isn’t the only word to describe the puzzle-in-progress. Intriguing. Innovative. Gutsy. These terms are apt as well.

When complete, the puzzle will span nearly four metres across and two metres high. It will have exactly 400 pieces and each knobbed piece will have been artistically decorated or created from scratch by a different person.

The exciting part is that no one — except a small, tight-lipped committee of the Dawson City Art Society — knows what the overall image will look like.

Yukoners, including big names like Jim Robb and Halin de Repentigny, have been major contributors to date, but the project will also showcase creativity from across Canada, the US (including Hawaii), Mexico, England, Holland and Austria.

Trying to get 400 people to collaborate in a single art project is a rather ambitious undertaking for a town with a population of 1,800, observes Nathan Bragg, a promoter of the puzzle.

“But it’s far less ambitious than something else DCAS been up to,” Bragg says.

“This fall, after seven years of planning and development, the society is opening the doors of a brand new, accredited school of visual art.”

With the art school slated to open in September, the push is on to complete and unveil the puzzle as a concurrent testament to artistic vision and teamwork.

The project began six years ago as a creative alternative to the plywood thermometers typically employed by non-profit organizations to publicize their fund-raising progress.

The plan was simple. As more money for the art school was secured, more puzzle pieces would be installed.

A puzzle committee decided on an overall design and transferred it onto sheets of plywood. The members then cut up the plywood into puzzle-shaped pieces, using — what else? — a jigsaw.

The puzzle pieces have been handed out to people pledging to decorate them according to the prescribed colour scheme and return them, in due course, to Dawson.

About 80 pieces have gone astray over the years and have had to be re-cut, notes Sharon Edmonds, the puzzle’s mother hen who has kept tabs on the whereabouts of each piece.

“One was irretrievably lost in a car accident in Mexico,” she recalls.

Another was accidentally allowed to float away on the Yukon River.

There are still 100 to 125 pieces “out there” in the hands of people who have not yet completed their design. DCAS has given them a deadline of July 15th and, beyond that, is still looking to recruit about 30 more participants.

“You don’t’ have to be an artist to take part,” stresses Bragg.

Most of the contributors to the puzzle are not professional visual artists and many have never before created a work for public display.

“The lesson here is that you need not be an expert to contribute meaningfully to a large endeavour,” Bragg says. “This is especially poignant if you consider global problems like poverty and hunger which require teamwork on the largest possible scale.”

The scope of the project, involving so many people, is of special interest to Bragg. Five months ago, he began correspondence with the judges for the Guinness Book of World Records to see how the puzzle might makes its mark in art history.

Bragg learned that the Dawson art initiative is not the largest in terms of physical size (nine square-metres) or number of contributors.

All the same, the project might still qualify for a record in a new category, possibly “largest collaborative mixed-media installation.”

The Guinness folks have advised Bragg to contact them again when the puzzle is closer to completion.

Aside from its promotional, symbolic and record-setting merits, the giant jigsaw puzzle promises to be a conversation piece in its own right. To date, 166 of the 400 pieces are installed and each is its own special brand of eye candy.

The range of techniques and media include bronze casting, photo collage, oil and acrylic painting, stained glass, mosaic, found object assemblage, woodcarving and sewing, to name some.

“You can tell people have put a lot of themselves into their pieces, and there’s so much attention to detail,” says Edmunds, whose mother hen role has afforded her the inside scoop on many of the designs.

“A viewer’s going to need scaffolding to properly appreciate it all,” adds Bragg.

Chris Scherbarth is a member of Yukon Artists at Work and Yukon Art Society.

To find out more or get involved…

Dawson City Art Society has just this week hired a puzzle co-ordinator to help shepherd the project to its completion and unveiling. Part of the job will be updating a website that tracks the puzzle’s progress (, and staging a contest for people to guess what the puzzle portrays.

The new co-ordinator, Michael McCormack, can be contacted by phone at (867) 993-6390 or by email at:

Anyone wishing to decorate a puzzle piece may also e-mail:, with “Puzzle Piece Request” in the subject line.