A woman with a wide-reaching legacy in the Alberni Valley has died. Babe Gunn passed away on Feb. 23, 2021 at the age of 85.
The arts community knew her as Babe Gunn, stone sculptor, while others knew her as Priscilla Comis. “Babe was the nickname her father gave her and Gunn is her maiden name,” explains Holly Cameron, Gunn’s daughter.
Gunn was born in Ontario and brought her family to Port Alberni in the 1960s. One of her first jobs was operating a food truck on the city’s waterfront. “I was probably four when my Mom had a little van she used to go down to the waterfront,” Cameron recalled. Gunn would pick up doughnuts from a bakery on Argyle Street and have coffee and sandwiches to sell to workers.
She worked at the Beaufort Hotel, in the meat department at Woodward’s and opened her own pizza restaurant called The Hut.
“Mom started carving stone after she went to Malaspina (now Vancouver Island University) for a few winters taking art classes, where she work in bronze casting and clay,” Cameron said.
Not satisfied working with small sculptures, Gunn gained a reputation for working on large stone pieces requiring block-and-tackle and specialized power tools.
She apprenticed with George Pratt and worked on his famed Terry Fox memorial in Port Coquitlam. It was one of her biggest achievements, Cameron said. Gunn, Pratt and fellow carver Michael Binkley held several ‘Faces and Figures’ exhibitions at Granville Island in the 1990s.
“Mom has carvings all over the world,” Cameron said.
She discovered marble that had been revealed during a slide in the Kennedy Lake area. “The marble that was in the river bed of the slide was unbelievable: pinks and greens,” Cameron recalled. Gunn and others—including family members—mined marble that Gunn called “rainforest marble” from that area until the logging road into the slide area was decommissioned.
Gunn’s most visible artwork in Port Alberni—and by far her biggest artistic achievement—is ‘Our Rugged Returning Salmon’, a granite sculpture making up the round fountain at Harbour Quay. Commissioned by the City of Port Alberni, it was unveiled on May 23, 1992 and features salmon carved from various Canadian rock depicted on their way back to the spawning grounds. Her 3 Geoducks are installed at Centennial Park in east Bamfield, and a stone mermaid she carved appears every spring on the rocks off the Net Loft.
Gunn went back to school when she was already a mother and became the first female fisheries’ officer in Canada. She spent 12 years with fisheries patrolling the Alberni Inlet and Barclay Sound. When she left the government organization she continued with fishing charters on her own boat.
Aside from carving stone Gunn painted oil and watercolours on canvas in her earlier years, before going back to school. She also worked in bronze and clay—her final piece was done in clay. Cameron’s nephew Jody and son Diago have taken up painting. Cameron’s sisters, Faithe and Aprille, both carved with Gunn at various times in their lives, and Cameron’s son Devon did as well.
“Mom termed herself a rebel because she was.”
While Gunn is known outside the family for her art, she is known within the family for all the time she gave to her grandchildren. “Her love for her grandchildren was bar none,” Cameron said.
Gunn is survived by her sister Bonnie (Brian), children Aprille, Barb (Mel), Faithe (Scott), Holly and Michelle (Darren), grandchildren Jesse-Lee, Lonnie, Kathy, Robert Joseph ‘BJ’, Ardin, Jody, Keegan, James, Nicole, Joshua, Amber, Devon, David, Ryan, Jacob, 16 great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren and many nieces, nephews and extended family. S
he was pre-deceased by husband Arllen Comis, siblings Viola, Emmaline ‘Toots’, Phyllis, Kenneth and Arllen’s son Gary.
The family did not hold a formal gathering or service.
In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be considered for the Alberni Valley Hospice Society and Ty Watson House Hospice.
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Arts and cultureBamfieldPORT ALBERNI