Is there a more authentically Canadian human being on Earth than Liz Pead? Doubtful. On a Friday afternoon in November, you find her playing in a celebrity tournament hosted by Brad May, receiving effortless saucer passes from retired NHL defenseman Dave Ellett. She mixes it up on the blue ice, jawing happily with her opponents, some male, some female, hunting for garbage goals. She's not the fastest player on the ice, but she has a solid excuse: she's not usually a forward. She's a goaltender by trade, a student of Sami Jo Small's school. Oh, and a hockey mom to two children. While Pead plays, her impeccable work hangs above the glass overlooking the rinks at Oakville's Sixteen Mile Sports Complex: a giant art installation, as wide as a minivan, depicting Louis Riel and the Church at Batoche in 1885. The church, the blue sky, the trees and the dirt puff out from the canvas – because they are comprised entirely of old hockey equipment. Pead rounds up any used or discarded pieces she can find, many of which come from NHLers, and stitches them into her work. She's done an extensive Bill Barilko installation. She grew up idolizing the Group of Seven's Tom Thomson and New York Islanders Hall of Fame goaltender Billy Smith equally. When she acted on stage as a kid, her first big role was 'Canada Goose.' Her only line was 'Honk, honk, honk.' Someone, please, put her on a stamp right now. She bleeds maple syrup. So how did an awe-shucks drama nut from New Brunswick become one of her nation's most innovative artists, whose work pops up in arenas all over the world, who also finds time to stop pucks in tournaments everywhere from Iceland to the Czech Republic?
It started with the stage, actually. Pead studied dramatic arts into her teen years. It shows. She's gregarious, larger than life, commanding any room she enters, shattering any stereotypical notion of the introverted "artiste" who paints in a loft and avoids social contact. While she enjoyed acting, she found herself even more drawn to the building of sets. She attended the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, where she learned the hands-on art of fabric surface design. She lived in a small town called St. Andrew's by-the-Sea for a decade, spending time with other artists and working in commercial galleries. Her love of the Group of Seven led her to Toronto by 2000 and the Ontario College of Art and Design. The Big Smoke is where her three loves in life – art, hockey and her husband Don – converged to forge her true calling. Pead had flirted with hockey as a kid. She was discouraged from playing it because of her gender but was determined to do it anyway. She had to settle for playing on figure skates and using a broken stick. "My god, figure skates were like trying to run a marathon on high heels," she said. Never again. After her honeymoon, Don surprised her with the perfect gift: a proper set of hockey equipment. He presented her with it as soon as they got off their plane, and she was on the ice that day. At that point, Pead hadn't yet discovered her passion for netminding. She played forward, which meant she was in the line of fire for collisions. She took a hit one day and had to sit out a shift. Then came the eureka moment that launched her art career. "I’d been reading a lot about the idea of nests and making foundation (in art)," she said. "So I’d been thinking of all these different things to make nests out of: recycled clothing, old electronic parts. And I took this hit. I’m sitting on the bench, and in the corner is a pile of broken hockey sticks." And that's how it started. Broken hockey sticks became trees. And old cup, a glove and a pair of shin pads became a Stanley Cup. Any piece Pead could get her hands on was a potential piece for an installation. Her 2005 thesis at OCAD: recycling hockey gear into textile art that encapsulated the visual landscape painting style of the Group of Seven. "Those broken hockey sticks were just going into the landfill, and that’s wrong, wrong, bad, bad, bad," Pead said. "So I was rescuing landfill and turning it into landscape paintings. It satisfies me in some way. My vague Canadian guilt says, living in such a resource rich country, that we’re not as responsible as we should be. Go right now and look in any garbage can and you could probably outfit something." And that's what Pead has done. She typically starts with sketches and paintings on smaller canvasses to give herself the idea of the big picture. Then comes the real thing, on the large surface, using the hockey equipment. The Riel installation depicts the battle of Batoche, which led to the surrender of Louis Riel's Metis people. Another work of hers illustrates the crash site where the former Barilko's plane tragically went down in 1951. A third major piece explores the disappearance of Thomson, her favorite artist, in 1917. Her next big project: a representation of Canadian suffragette Nellie McClung, complete with Manitoba prairie scenery. A look at the Riel installation in its permanent home at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex, with Pead standing below it:
Pead has always been fascinated by Riel and his Metis' people's battle with the English, so much so that she and her friend Brian created a hockey-themed narration of the North-West Rebellion, calling the events in "periods" like the play-by-play of a hockey game. He was Joe Bowen, as she put it, and she was Cassie Campbell-Pascall. The recording was part of the exhibit. "When you read about Louis Riel, the little rifle pit, how the Metis used the landscape to hold back the English during the revolution was astounding," Pead said. "It’s like they knew the land so intimately that they knew how to use the land in a way that helped them." Another sample of her work, "Maple LEAF Tree," which uses cards for leaves and pucks for roots:
Pead injects the gear of some famous players into her work. Who, then? It's a natural question to ask, but she doesn't like to name name names. If the world knows Steven Stamkos' gloves comprise one of her installations, it's an invitation to swipe a piece of Stamkos' gear. So she and the players keep it quiet. "The players know, and they look at (the art) and, and they go, 'Mmm hmm,' " she said. "But I don't want people coming and ripping off pieces of my work because it's worth something, 'a game-worn so-and-so jersey.' So it's a promise I make. They just say 'Don't tell anyone I gave it to you.' And I say, 'Don't worry. I'll mix it in with the general population. No one will ever know.' " Her installations find long-term homes in in rinks all over the world because she makes so many friends internationally. She created FUNgals, a team that plays in international tournaments and introduces women's hockey to nations still lacking enrollment of female players. The FUNgals are all about accepting any new adventure they can find – just as Pead does in her artwork. She's as open-minded as it gets. That's why the fateful pile of broken sticks spoke to her. It told her some players' "trash" is anything but, that it can be revived and immortalized as hockey treasure in the right hands.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin