Painting a 90,000-mile 'peace dove' -- with fire

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What would you do with 4,500 huge bonfires? Call for a federal inquiry? Ask the neighbors over and have a giant marshmallow roast? Or would you step aside and let the creative hand of an artist carefully construct the bonfires into the brightly flaming contours of a peace dove to span most of North America?

Fantasy? Perhaps. But as the saying goes: ''It doesn't cost any more to dream in color than in black and white.''

Edmonton artist Peter Lewis not only thinks big, but also is showing progess toward making ''a peaceful statement'' that will surely catch the attention of the world . . . if the project flies. Or, to put it more aptly, if the project ''goes up in smoke.''

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What Lewis has in mind is staggering in dimension and concept. Imagine stacking a gigantic bonfire every 20 miles to form the outline of a peace dove stretching from northern Canada to the United States' deep south, and from Washington, D.C., to Vancouver! Then, simultaneously ignite the 4,500 stacks, and presto, ''It's global art.''

To get the full effect, the artist plans to have the ''dove'' photographed by satellite and carried via television to the homes of millions. ''The burn'' would last about 12 hours; and since it is difficult to get an aerial shot of North America without cloud cover, Lewis is thinking of using a chemical implant around the bonfires, so the heat-sensitive satellite can clearly distinguish the ''dove.''

Jan. 7, 1985 (Christmas day according to the Julian calendar), is the day Lewis has set to ignite his ''image.'' So far he has spent more than a year researching and plotting the 90,000-mile outline, which will see the eye of the dove centered in Edmonton, the tail touching Washington, D.C., and Ottawa.

His efforts are being funded in part by the Canada Council, a patron of the arts. With some federal and provincial agencies also lending their support, Lewis is starting to work out details in the US - in particular, to convince NASA to film the project.

Will he be successful?

When one catches up with the ''global artist'' in one of Edmonton's bistros, Lewis contends ''all this is totally feasible.'' He isn't deterred in the least by some of the remaining challenges. There are a few.

Notwithstanding the mounds of red tape, about a quarter of a million volunteers are needed to build the 4,500 bonfires in 17 states and seven provinces. Each stack is to measure 30 feet high and 30 feet in diameter and will use 30 tons of wood. (Most of the material will be scrap, says Lewis, including tons of Christmas trees, which usually end up at the dump.)

All of this may seem out of the question. But skeptics should take note: In 1980, to help commemorate Alberta's 75th anniversary Lewis overcame some unbelievable obstacles and put together the ''Great Divide'' - an artificial waterfall just a little higher than Niagara Falls.

After raising $1.2 million and convincing scores of government officials and businessmen, Lewis rigged up a permanent system to pump water over Edmonton's high level bridge. When turned on, 11,000 gallons of water per minute plunged into the north Saskatchewan River from the top of the bridge, forming a waterfall 300 feet wide and 210 feet high.

The ''Great Divide'' made a mighty splash in the national news media. So, nowadays when Lewis talks big and thinks big, people usually pay a little more attention.

Why would someone devote three years to a project that would later burn away in 12 hours?

''It heightens one's level of consciousness. . . . It's a peaceful statement, '' Lewis says, adding: ''I wanted to do a piece of art which was global in its entity as opposed to being limited on a two-dimensional surface.''

As a final touch, the bonfire stacks are to be built in the shape of missiles. ''Don't you see,'' says Lewis, ''you burn the missiles to create the dove.''

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