Sculptor Billy Gauthier doesn’t carve out of blocks of stone, and he rarely sketches a work before he begins. He waits for the character of his raw materials to speak to him, embracing all fractures, veins and imperfections.
The artist and activist, who grew up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nunatsiavut, NL, and who now resides in North West River, NL, says that the creative ideas behind a piece cannot be forced onto materials. He believes his job, as an artist, is to ensure those materials will be appreciated for as long as possible.
Here, IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter hears from Gauthier, who is longlisted for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, on five works that speak to his organic processes and deep appreciation for the natural world.
Billy Gauthier Swimming Loons (My Tribute to Kenojuak Ashevak) (2010) Muskox horn, moose antler, serpentine, labradorite 45.72 x 45.72 x 30.48 cmPhoto Kenji Nagai Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery © the artist
Swimming Loons (My Tribute to Kenojuak Ashevak)
Gauthier had been given a couple of cases of muskox horn, which he held onto for a long time, staring at the materials waiting for inspiration to hit. One day he realized that the horns have a natural loon-like shape, and took out a few pieces and taped them up on a half-rack of moose antlers, manipulating them in various ways.
“I really wanted to make sure it was well balanced,” he says. “I kept taping the raw materials and seeing how they would look together, how close or how far to bring them together.” Although he was satisfied with their final position, the question remained: What are these birds doing?
Gauthier is a huge fan of Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, ONu, RCA (1927–2013), whose drawings and prints often returned to the loon as a favourite subject. He says, “It seemed like a no-brainer for me to make this a tribute to her because of everything that she's done for Inuit art and for Inuit artists, in general."
He began playing around, emulating the elongated tail feathers that Ashevak captured in her own work. In a moment of ingenuity, Gauthier discovered that if he heated the horn, it would bend, almost like plastic, and maintain that position after cooling.
“At the time, this was the first and only material that I’d ever used that could do this,” says Gauthier, who later discovered that he could also manipulate baleen in a similar fashion. “But it was such an interesting, fun new technique that really came to me because of this specific piece inspired by Kenojuak, who was just such an amazing artist.”
Billy Gauthier Mosquito on Hand (2011) Anhydrite and moose antler 7.62 x 17.78 x 14.61 cmPhoto Kenji Nagai Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery © the artist
Mosquito on Hand
Going back to childhood, Gauthier has always been fascinated by nature, even by the bloodthirsty black flies and mosquitoes most of us despise. As portrayed in this 2011 sculpture of a still anhydrite hand about to get chomped on by a tiny moose-antler mosquito, Gauthier explains that the easiest way to observe the insects is to let them bite you. He recalls sticking his hand out as a kid and letting them draw blood, giving him more time to closely examine their bodies.
Today, Gauthier considers himself “as much of a fisherman as I am a carver,” and sees mosquitos serving a valuable purpose: driving people (other than diehards like himself) away from lakes and rivers, which, in turn, curbs overfishing. “As I got older, I started realizing how incredibly important that was,” he says. “So, I love the mosquito, which will hopefully continue to protect our rivers as much as possible.”
Billy Gauthier Northern Voices (Owl / Human Transformation) Serpentine, anhydrite, grouse feathers, ptarmigan feathers (2008) 22.86 x 21.59 x 12.7 cmPhoto Kenji Nagai Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery © the artist
Northern Voices (Owl / Human Transformation)
Gauthier recalls feeling nervous when he began working on this piece. He hadn’t carved many masks before and was still learning about shamanism. Most of the masks he had seen were made of organic materials like ivory, or out of bits of bone and wood, but he made the creative decision to create his out of serpentine and anhydrite.
Initially Gauthier planned to carve the feathers out of stone as well, but remembered that he had saved some feathers from some grouse and ptarmigan he had hunted. “It was fun to use such a heavy material like stone and then put a really light material, like the feathers, along with it and try to make all of that work together,” he says.
The mask’s wide-open beak beckons with its long tongue sticking out, which Gauthier associates with sound and speech. On the tip of the tongue is a small carved face with an even tinier open mouth, suggesting he has something to say. Gauthier carved a small owl’s face into one pupil of the mask, and was about to carve another when he changed his mind and carved a human face instead. “I believe we are animals, and this is the idea behind this piece really,” Gauthier says. “There is no difference. I believe both humans and animals have feelings.”
Billy Gauthier, Mending her Mitten (2012) Serpentine, anhydrite, alabaster, ivory, antler, sinew 10.16 x 12.7 x 12.7 cmPhoto Kenji Nagai Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery © the artist
Mending her Mitten
This sculpture of a young woman, which showcases Gauthier’s talent for capturing quiet moments, was one of his first commissioned pieces. As he finished carving this face with downcast eyes that appear focused on a task at hand, Gauthier realized that he wanted to give his subject something more to do. He still wasn’t sure where the piece was heading, but he carved a mitten out of antler, adding a small rip on its side, as if the woman was finishing some mending.
But there was still a missing element, and so Gauthier created a needle case out of lynx tooth. With a fish-shaped plug on one side, the case not only holds up the threaded sinew, it also contains a secret: inside there are several carved needles.
“I knew that nobody was really going to take this apart and look inside,” Gauthier says. “But I know there are needles in there and the person that owns it now knows there are. Even though you don’t get to see things sometimes, just knowing they’re there is nice.”
Billy Gauthier A Shaman’s Dance (2007) Serpentine, anhydrite, steatite, ptarmigan feathers, ptarmigan claw 17.78 x 10.16 x 8.89 cmPhoto Kenji Nagai Courtesy Spirit Wrestler Gallery © the artist
A Shaman’s Dance
This piece is not just incredibly important to Gauthier because it was one of the first sculptures he sent to Nigel Reading at Spirit West Gallery in Vancouver, BC, where his professional art career took off, but because it taught him a valuable lesson about letting the materials guide his decisions, and that sometimes mistakes can be a creative gift.
As Gauthier was nearing completion of A Shaman’s Dance, it broke in half due to a fracture in the serpentine.
“I remember being so upset because I put so much time and effort into it. I put it down and had to walk away,” says Gauthier. After the initial disappointment wore off, he was determined to rework the piece by integrating the fracture into the sculpture’s overall design.
As he began carving the anhydrite spirits, he used the break as a way to wrap the figures around the middle of the shaman’s body, which didn’t just cover the accident but gave the illusion of them floating. To create the hoops around the shaman’s mask, Gauthier gathered some ptarmigan feathers and trimmed them down to create even smaller feathers, which he lashed together with tiny spruce roots to maintain the mask’s natural feel.
“Now I don’t give up on any of my pieces,” he says. “Whenever a piece breaks, I look at it as that material did not want to become what I wanted it to become and it’s time to listen. And almost always, whenever I do start listening to the material itself, it definitely becomes better than my original intent. Maybe in a way the materials are the better artists of the two of us.”
Read more about the other longlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.