Half a century ago, an Anglican artist sculpted four angels for a Vancouver church and made them ivory on a blue background.

But they were too prominent for the United Church congregation, which decided to paint over them to turn the bas-relief angels grey on grey.

Leonard Woods, a Vancouver sculptor and member of St. Andrew's, Langley, speaks at St. Andrews Wesley United in Vancouver under a bas relief angel he created over 50 years ago, which will only now be returned to its original colours. (Photo by Peter Woods)

The decision to restore the angels in the chancel of St. Andrews Wesley in downtown Vancouver to their original colours has not come a moment too soon for artist Leonard Woods, a long-time member of St. Andrew's (Anglican) in Langley, who is now 84 years old.

Woods has always thought that that the original colours were vital to the art.

"I've been thinking the matter through for fifty years," Woods says. "I'm really exceedingly gratified and happy that the time has come now for doing the job."

The Board of Trustees at St. Andrews Wesley made the decision in September after months of discussion.

Woods' hopes were raised in mid-March when he was invited to speak as a guest of honour at one of a series of artist's luncheons organized by Agnes Hall, chair of the St. Andrews Wesley's Open Sanctuary Program.

Hall gives tours of her church every summer to thousands of visitors from around the world who wish to see its works of art, including the stained glass windows by internationally renowned French artist Gabriel Loire.

Commissioned in 1947, the four figures, which are larger than life size and weigh about 300 lbs each, are inspired by the imagery of Psalm 150, in which God is praised with the sound of musical instruments. They depict the four angels of the Bible in the form of a cymbalist, a trumpeter, a flautist and a cellist.

It is possible that fifty years ago the realistically-rendered, semi-clad bodies of the figures, made some members of the congregation uncomfortable. But times have changed.

Asked if the angels are intended to be celebratory, Woods replies, "Why of course!"

"They have a wonderful organ there [at St. Andrews Wesley] and you know the wonderful trumpet stops and reed stops. You hear the trumpet play and the flute play. It's meant to mirror aurally the wonderful organ."

Despite his fifty years of sadness over the greying out of the sculptures, Woods says he understands the reasons for the decision.

"The congregation was very justified in returning them to stone so they weren't so prominent," he says. "Before they installed the stained glass, the church had no ambience of light…these sculptures with the blue background and ivory, they did stand out far too prominently."

Nonetheless, to Woods' mind, the restoration will have a profound effect. "A work of art is a work of transmission. Back of the colours and shapes is the spirit of the thought that gave birth to this. Every work of art comes from the spirit and in that grey format; the spirit can't work through it. It's blocked," he explains.

He conceived of the angels as "part of the wonderful expression of the choir and the organ."

"To me it is the liberated, physical joyfulness of these figures which speaks so profoundly to our experience as human beings with God. That they are somewhat androgynous makes their statement the more universal. The innocence of their exultation seems eternal. Gods first call to us is to be created beings in love with the Creator.

"I concepted them as a vehicle for the music they're playing," he says. "I did not concept these figures as ornamental, I concepted them as a vehicle of heavenly music. They are emissaries of that particular archangelic force, which I see as a radiant thing, as a means."

Geoff Rees, a Vancouver artist and former instructor at Emily Carr Institute, saw the sculptures soon after they were installed in 1948 while studying with Woods at the Vancouver School of Art.

"There are a couple of things about the anatomy. First, its literal accuracy to the human body, the musculature; the bony prominences you can see of the elbows, knees and wrists."

"But the other thing is that Leonard has produced all these figures in high relief.

They give the illusion of being full-rounded, but they are not more than six inches from the nearest point of the figure to the back wall. That's quite an extraordinary and beautiful thing to accomplish," says Rees, who is overjoyed with the church's decision.

A friend and student of Woods', Barry Gilson, a Vancouver interior designer, will oversee the work, which he will also help finance. Rose Quintana, one of the artists who worked with Bill Reid on the Jade Canoe at the Vancouver International Airport, which now also appears on a new Canadian twenty-dollar bill, will do the restoration itself.

"I know the whole thing is in the best of hands," says Woods. "I would say it's a very happy denouement to the whole story and it's a very long story and it has been frustrating for me, but I think these things happen when the time is right."