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The Bells of Brackendale ring in 30 years

Now 81, Thor Froslev makes and sells dozens of bells each year at his Performing arts gallery



It is hard to imagine what Brackendale, near Squamish, would be without Thor Froslev.

The Danish import has shaped the community hugely, building the Brackendale Art Gallery (BAG) in 1972 while still working as a longshoreman, pushing the B.C. government into establishing Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park across the Squamish River in 1999 to ensure a wild place for thousands of wintering bald eagles, and hosting, alongside his wife Dorte, the annual eagle festival at the BAG every January.

Now 81, Froslev is as active as ever, and is celebrating a milestone as an artist — he has been making bells in his workshop behind the gallery for 30 years.

You reach a kind of regional inner sanctum if you have one of these monsters on your porch ("I've got bells all over") — Froslev doesn't make small bells. Their chime is deep and rather satisfying.

Although he has forged bells the traditional way, the "Bells of Brackendale" are made from repurposed gas canisters and other metal objects.

"It's a trade secret, but you have to sandblast them and grind them. You paint them three times with semi-gloss acrylic paint. You have to weld the top on. I use scraps from railway ties and logging, I go to the scrapyard," Froslev says. "I test everything together for balance then I weld it."

Froslev describes bells as having a kind of holiness.

"When I was a kid, I lived in Denmark on this little island. You could hear five or six bells every morning and it was like you were not alone. There was somebody else out there and that was a secure feeling," Froslev recalls.

"Of course, bells have been used for fire alarms... for telling people when to start work. They've been a useful tool for a long time."

And while Froslev was obviously moved by the pealing bells of his youth, he didn't start to make them until he was in his 50s.

"I cast a bell at Emily Carr (School of Art and Design, as it was named then) at summer school with (sculptor) George Rammell, but the methods (involved) so much heat and equipment. So I wanted to come up with another idea," he says.

Early experimentation with making the bells yielded mixed results, and Froslev thought he could do better than that.

The bells are not on the small side. The lightest is around 25 pounds, the largest, well over 100. Another, thinner, bell is around four feet long.

Who goes after bells that large?

"A guy who walks in and says, 'I'd like one of your big bells!' That's it," Froslev says.

Each bell is unique, particularly in terms of the cannon, or loop, at the top of each that suspends them from a hook. Froslev has forged fancy shapes into cannons, such as Inukshuks in honour of the 2010 Winter Games.

Froslev sells about 25 bells a year; he makes them in batches of about 10 at a time, but not for technical reasons.

"My forefathers, when they cast bronze belts, for instance, they cast 10 at a time. Not just one. Be smart, do 10," he says.

"That's what I do. The nice situation with bells is that I can walk in and out of my workshop and they can wait. They don't have to be finished today. I can be called away from my workshop and just leave it.

"If I can't sleep at night I get up, go out to the workshop, put the radio on CBC and I just work away. Nobody knows I'm there. It's kind of perfect."

Visit www.brackendaleartgallery.com for more information.