A local artist’s work that immortalized the late Gord Downie through his penny portrait has found a temporary new home at the National Music Centre (NMC) at Studio Bell in downtown Calgary.
“It’s one thing for fans of music to go there and see my piece, but it’s another thing for people that want to see it to also see everything else NMC has to offer,” said Airdrie artist Luke Carruthers. “There is so much Canadian and music history there. There are so many cool displays and things to learn about, it’s a really cool venue and I am excited [for my work] to be there.”
Carruthers garnered international attention in September 2020 after his portrait of the Tragically Hip front man – made completely out of pennies – was shared on social media. The project took him roughly three years to complete and started after he saw his work colleagues rolling pennies from donation boxes for the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
He offered to buy the coins and initially thought a project involving the pennies would end with a penny floor in his basement.
“Then I thought that maybe I could do some art or something,” he said. “I did some research and found a guy in the U.S. who had done an Abraham Lincoln portrait out of American pennies.”
He said he got the idea to base his portrait on Downie after hearing about the singer's diagnosis of glioblastoma, a type of uncurable brain cancer. Downie passed away in 2017, which Carruthers said really kickstarted his motivation for the project.
After it was completed, it didn’t take long for the portrait – which stands approximately eight feet tall and was compiled from nearly 11,400 pennies – to garner attention online. Not only due to the love Canadians have for Downie and the Tragically Hip, but also because of how good the piece is.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “A few friends had seen it because it was in my garage. When I finished it, my girlfriend shared it on her Instagram.”
After more and more people shared it online, media attention started to gather. Interviews from Global News, CBC, CTV and a number of other news outlets brought the attention of many, including the National Music Centre.
“About a week later, National Music Centre called me and said they are doing a display about local storytellers and they would like to use my piece,” Carruthers said. “I thought it was awesome because then local Hip fans will be able to see it, and it’s not sitting in my garage anymore.”
The piece is currently on display at Studio Bell. Carruthers said he is not sure for how long it will be there, but with COVID-19 guidelines in place, the timeline has changed.
“They have asked if they can hold on to it for longer,” he said. “It’s going to be there for a while.”