The Master Carver

In July, I spent two days in Inuvik during the Great Northern Arts Festival.  Throughout the festival, professionals offer a variety of workshops for us non-artists – everything from making a traditional Dene drum to sewing seal-skin mittens.

I may be a musician, but my artistic abilities do not translate to the visual arts world.  I have never been able to draw, and my feeble attempts at making something out of clay in public school always resulted in deformed pieces that only a mother could love (and even that was questionable).  So, I was both excited and nervous when I snagged the final spot in an eight-hour soapstone carving workshop.

There were eight students in my workshop, which was led by master carver John Sabourin.  We gathered around some tables in a large tent outside and picked out a large chunk of soapstone.  There were a few stencils of traditional forms we could use to get started, or we could draw something freehand (yeah, right).  I figured a polar bear would be a good choice, and step one was figuring out how to make it fit on my piece of rock.

The first part was easy in concept, a bit difficult to execute.  Using a hand saw, I had to trim off the large pieces of extra stone.  I know soapstone is considered a soft stone, but it’s still a rock, and my arm was getting pretty tired after 10 minutes of sawing.  I looked enviously at some of the professional carvers who were using power tools, but we were doing this old-school, so I just put my head down and kept going.

For the next five hours, I used a variety of small metal files to slowly shape the square stone into a rounded piece.  Every once in a while John would stop by and suggest areas that should be filed down, and a few times I ducked inside to look at finished sculptures in the gallery to see what the bear should look like.  It seemed impossible that my chunk of rock would ever resemble an actual bear.

At one point, I said to John, “The head – it looks like a bull”.

He said, “Do you want it to be a bull?”

Who had ever heard of a soapstone bull?  “No,” I said, “I want a bear”.

He took my piece over to his Dremel-like tool, and 30 seconds later my bull was looking decidedly more bear-like.  He made it look awfully easy.

By the middle of the afternoon, my hair and clothes were covered in a fine white dust.  The bear was beginning to take shape, and John suggested it was time to start sanding.  This was a painfully slow process that involved no fewer than six different steps – coarse sandpaper, fine sandpaper, the rough side of a sanding sponge, the fine side of a sanding sponge, steel wool in water, and 800-grit sandpaper.  The final step was wiping it down with tung oil and buffing it to a shine.

Dipping the sculpture in water had a magical effect.  The dry soapstone was white, but as soon as it got wet, it looked completely different.  The stone was a beautiful green colour, with black streaks and gold flecks littered throughout.  I couldn’t believe how great it looked.

It was a pretty cool way to spend a day.  Life at home is usually too busy to contemplate spending eight hours sitting at a table and focusing all your attention on a small piece of stone – it had a definite Zen-like quality. I walked back to the hotel with a spring in my step, the bear snug under my arm, with a rare sense of satisfaction that I had actually created something.  I also came away with a much deeper appreciation for the skill of the real carvers whose work was on display at the festival – they are truly talented artists.

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