I have had the pleasure of seeing owls in the wild on many occasions, and each time creates a sense of awe and wonder. When I look at the carving Mythical Owl (c. 1978) by Osuitok Ipeelee, I vividly recall an experience I had with an owl while out hunting deer, as if connecting with Ipeelee’s own interactions out on the land.
Real owls like the one I saw don’t have any jagged features, and neither does Ipeelee’s. In Mythical Owl, individual feathers join together on the owl’s stone body to form a smooth surface, giving it a soft appearance with a sense of weightlessness and airiness.
I can imagine Ipeelee’s hands as he formed this stone into the owl, working to smooth the hard edges of the stone into the curves of the owl’s body. My gaze is captivated by his sense of restraint, letting the stone speak for itself without adding unnecessary details. He allows the stone to take the shape of an owl, but also allows the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the stone.
Perched like a dancer, one leg flows backwards as if the tops of its talons are brushing the snow, while the other leg pushes forwards to complete the take off. This graceful pose is complemented by the owl’s fully open wings: tips pointed back, almost touching, like a butterfly. The owl I saw on my hunting trip flew with similar grace as it propelled its body through the air, its wings cupping together and then rippling outwards like a gentle tide. I can remember it holding the same pose as Ipeelee’s carving, mid-flight and wingtips upwards, easily riding the unseen wind.
Ipeelee’s carvings can sometimes look ghostly, particularly the delicate, narrow legs of his caribou carvings, which make their bulkier bodies seem to float. This owl has the same top-heavy structure, balanced as if by a phantom presence.
The kind of creativity and vision that Ipeelee wielded to elevate an ordinary owl to the otherworldly meant that his works were much sought after and he was commissioned to create major works of public art, including the official mace for the NWT Legislative Assembly, which he carved in 1952, and a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II presented on her visit to Canada in 1959.
The owl I encountered that day swooped up into a pine tree in front of me. I could not look away—I didn’t want to look away in case I missed it doing something extraordinary like opening a portal into another dimension.
Each time I made a noise, the owl looked off into a field behind the treeline—it would glare at me and then look to the field, and I realized it was looking at a white-tailed deer that was walking directly to me. I shot the deer cleanly and tracked him quickly. The moment I found him, the owl flew up and perched on a branch above the buck and me, watching with those magical eyes.
This event solidified my belief that owls are mystical beings. Like most non-humans, they communicate with us if we are willing to pay attention. Much like the owl that led me to the buck in the woods, Mythical Owl leads me on a journey of introspection, the depth of its dark stone eyes drawing me into a dreamlike state. It’s as awe-inspiring as the view of a star-filled evening: the green marbling throughout the piece simulates the magic of northern lights, while the specks and veins of white resemble stars and the Milky Way.
Osuitok Ipeelee takes flight with this astounding carving, Mythical Owl
This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.