I am often amazed at the passion that drives a person, and in doing these articles, I have the opportunity to delve into the backgrounds of prominent individuals within our community. I recently sat down with Tyler Briley, a sculptor, whose focus is related to our veterans. Next month being Remembrance Day, I thought it fitting to feature Tyler in this edition of the Story Behind the Person.
The Peace Tower in Ottawa is fittingly named for the peace which Canada maintains, both internally and abroad. The people responsible for that peace are our veterans, first responders and those who sacrifice much, to ensure the rest of us can live free. One such hero, a soldier during World War I, suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and took his life. He was erased from every element of our history.
The soldier is Sam Sharpe, a Member of Parliament for North Durham, who enlisted and recruited many of his friends who fought diligently at Vimy Ridge, Avion and Passchendaele. Upon his return, while recovering in a hospital in Montreal, he learned of the demise of many of his comrades. Because most of them had enlisted at the urging of Sam Sharpe, the guilt he felt was overwhelming. He committed suicide, and was immediately stricken from any records honouring those who fought in the Great War.
The government went so far as to slice a painting of Sam Sharpe and leave it as trash, in an effort to hide what was considered a weakness, from the general public. So the untold story of Sam Sharpe remained, until five years ago, when the Honourable Erin O’Toole, member of Parliament and, at the time, Minister of Veterans Affairs, decided to change history. Erin called on art aficionado, Kent Farndale, who recommended Tyler Briley as an artist who could bring the memory of Sam Sharpe alive, once again.
Tyler set to work, searching for facts and history about his subject. “I have to understand what drives the subject I’m sculpting,” Tyler replied. I asked him if his research had created a bond with the fallen soldier. “There is definitely a link between the two of us now,” Tyler answered.
Tyler set out to create a bronze bust of Sam Sharpe, and after its unveiling at an event in Port Perry’s Memorial Library, it was transported to Ottawa for an official presentation at what has since become a legendary event, the Sam Sharpe breakfast. I had the pleasure of attending the event, and was amazed by those in attendance. Senator Romeo Dallaird and Erin O’Toole hosted the breakfast, and speakers included Michael Landsberg of TSN and Joe Tilley of CTV. The common bond was the camaraderie forged by PTSD, and its related illnesses.
Why was Tyler Briley chosen to create this fantastic piece of art? During my interview I learned that Tyler also has a connection to PTSD, as a result of his career as a first responder with the Scarborough Fire Department. Born in Leamington Ontario, in the heart of tobacco country, Tyler’s family moved to Scarborough when he was still an infant. A paper route got him through school, and a part time job at Shoppers Drug Mart gave him spending cash while attending R.H. King Secondary school.
“I started Carving when I was about six years old,” Tyler explained “I get lost in the piece. For me, it’s an emotional release. “I would carve all sorts of images onto broom handles, which needless to say, didn’t go over well with my mother”. To keep peace, his father gave him some soft rocks which he could carve, and he soon moved to soapstone. As Tyler honed his craft, he exhibited at shows and developed quite a following.
Tyler attended the University of Western Ontario, specializing in Geology, as he had a deep interest in fossils and archeology. From there he travelled out west for a year, working in a hotel in Banff. He returned to Toronto for a wedding, on a motorcycle road trip, and he decided to stay. In 1979 he married his wife, Debbie. The wedding took place a day after Tyler was hired by the Scarborough Fire Department.
Eight years later, the couple, along with their three children went for a Sunday drive and discovered Port Perry. They immediately fell in love with the town and moved here. Life was good, until a tragic turn of events began to weigh heavy on the firefighter. Tyler was injured on the job and after five surgeries attempted to return to work. Carrying large oxygen tanks during a chemical fire, caused Tyler’s injuries to resurface, and this time it would be a permanent sabbatical.
Doctors prescribed many treatments, but as a result of drugs and pain he drifted into a state of depression, becoming very anti-social. His eating habits also suffered and his weight jumped from 175 lbs., to 404 lbs. During a visit to yet another specialist, he overheard the physician dictate his notes. “I was shocked,” Tyler explained. “I overheard the doctor say that I had six months maximum to live.” He paused a moment to reflect. “I had no idea, but I certainly did not want to die.”
In 2014 Tyler decided that only he would be able to ‘fix’ himself, and decided to alter his entire being. The first thing on his agenda was to stop all the medicines that had been prescribed for him. I asked if he had withdrawal symptoms and he smiled. “It is certainly the hardest thing I have ever done, especially because I was doing it on my own”
He also stopped all alcoholic consumption and decided to pursue a vegetarian life style. Exercise also became part of Tyler’s daily routine, and his body began to heal. Tyler’s weight began to drop, and he lost 220 lbs. without the help of any weight loss plans, doctors or special diets. Pure willpower and determination were his driving forces.
One of Tyler Briley’s sculptures, dating back to the early nineties, found a permanent home in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. “I decided to create a dedication to my grandfather, a cavalry officer from the First World War.”
When Tyler received the call from Kent Farndale to work on the Sam Sharpe piece, he was elated. Tyler’s research created a bond with the WWI soldier. “Every photo I found showed Sam Sharpe as a young, strong soldier. Certainly not the type of person you would expect to be suicidal,” Tyler explained. He painstakingly aged the war hero in his bronze sculpture, into an image of a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The sculpture’s installation was set back as a result of the current government’s priorities, but Erin O’Toole has fought diligently to have the piece installed prior to Remembrance Day of this year. The long overdue tribute will re-awaken not only Sam Sharpe, but all of the heroes afflicted by PTSD and related illnesses.
Tyler Briley has progressed to include painting into his repertoire of art forms. We, in North Durham, are privileged to be able to see his work at the Kent Farndale Gallery in the Port Perry library. The opening reception is October 27th and the exhibition runs until November 23rd. A fitting tribute to all the veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice to provide a world of peace and prosperity for the rest of us.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.