Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble
Denis Toner’s campaign to commission a new Nantucket monument kicks off this July.
Few people have made a greater cultural impact on Nantucket than Denis Toner. Since founding the Nantucket Wine Festival over twenty years ago, Toner has helped turn the island into an international food and wine destination. Now this master of ceremonies is launching a half-million dollar project to put a much more literal mark on the island. This July, he’s hosting world-renowned sculptor Paul Day as part of an effort to erect a monument on the island that will be remain for generations to come.
“An iconic statue — we don’t have one here,” Toner says. Much like Gloucester’s “Man at the Wheel” monument, Toner wants Nantucket to have a landmark statue to celebrate the island’s history — except the symbolism he has in mind would extend far beyond our shores. Ten years ago, Nantucket was named the sister city of Beaune, France, a distinction that Toner, who splits his time between both places, brought into being. To further cement this twinning of the cities — what’s known as jumelage in French — Toner has enlisted the services of one of the most prestigious sculptors of our time, Paul Day.
Day has sculpted some of the most iconic monuments of the 21st century. His massive bronze and granite sculptures are revered for their astounding realism and thought-provoking use of perspective. In London, he won the commission for the Battle of Britain monument where RAF pilots appear to leap off an eighty-two-foot-long wall overlooking the River Thames. He then collaborated on the Queen Mother Memorial, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 2009. Most recently, Day completed a memorial to soldiers lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now has his sights set on Nantucket as the next home for his highly sought-after artwork.
“I’m just delighted with the idea of trying to get a project off the ground that could possibly lead to a piece of art that symbolizes the friendship between the people of Beaune and Nantucket,” Day says from his studio in Burgundy. “My plan is to bring together these two [communities] in a sculpture that has energy, movement and hopefully captures the spirit of the work.”
Toner was first exposed to Day’s artwork while visiting at a lavish property just outside of Beaune called Abbaye de la Bussiere. “Every time I went to that place, I ended up staring at these statues,” Toner says. “They really got me.” When he finally inquired about who the artist was, he discovered that the artist Paul Day lived just down the street. Toner sought him out and the two became quick friends. “Denis has such an infectious enthusiasm for things,” Day says. “In talking with him I realized that here was an opportunity to do something locally and leave a little landmark in what has become my hometown.” With this in mind, the jumelage project would result in two identical statues being cast and installed on Nantucket and in Beaune. The exact location on Nantucket is still being debated.
“It is our good fortune that Paul has agreed to participate in this project,” Toner says. “His ability and unique style will combine to create a lasting icon of two remarkable places.” After devouring Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, Day began sculpting small models of the monument. The sculpture shows a whaler on one side about to throw a harpoon and a winemaker gathering grapes on the other. “I’m looking to create a beautiful, romantic, meaningful work of art,” Day says. “That work of art is directly inspired by the history of these two wonderful places.”
To take his research a step further, Day will be visiting Nantucket during the last week of July. In addition to the artist, Toner will host a delegation from France, including select winemakers, vineyard owners, and the mayor and deputy mayor of Beaune for a number of events on Nantucket to champion the project. The statues, which will cost in the neighborhood of $500,000, could offer patrons an opportunity to literally put their name on two of the most storied communities in the world. “I’m hoping that many of the people that we know from Beaune and Nantucket, people with good hearts who love wine and love Nantucket and Beaune, will be able to raise some money for the statue,” Toner says.
Toner has formed a nonprofit around the statues. Beyond funding the commission of Paul Day, the Nantucket Combined Charities will be dedicated to supporting students on Nantucket and in Beaune who are entering the hospitality industry. Toner envisions an externship program in which students from Nantucket travel to Beaune and vice versa.
But at the end of the day, it all comes back to the art for Toner. “There are so many worthy causes in this troubled world that a statue may seem an unworthy choice,” Toner says. “But art is as nurturing to our souls as water in the desert. When art is inspiring and universal, our landscape is illuminated with hope and the possibility of a better world. Nantucket and Beaune would be enriched by this monument.”