It’s impossible to speak about 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award shortlister Billy Gauthier’s intricate sculptural works without acknowledging how his deep love of the land is reflected in his relationship to his chosen materials, which includes stone, ivory, bone, antler, sinew and baleen.
To better frame the importance of Gauthier’s body of work and his connection to the natural world and his community, IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter reached out to five key people who have worked with the North West River, NL, artist and environmental activist to share their perspectives on his powerful work.
Billy Gauthier The Two Sides of Sedna (2013) Serpentine and steatite 43.2 x 30.5 x 11.4 cm© the artist
When I first encountered Billy’s work, I was fascinated with his imagination and his attention to detail. I was so impressed that Billy was prepared to take all the time necessary to complete each sculpture with so much care. I have represented almost all his sculptures for the past 18 years and continue to do so with so many being unforgettable.
Over the many years we have worked together I have witnessed his technical skills develop as he challenges himself with a new level of difficulty on every piece. I am also impressed that he never repeats the same subject matter in his sculptures with every piece being different and a unique artwork. He is able to master and work at the highest level in all mediums including whalebone, baleen, antler, ivory, as well as stone.
The Two Sides of Sedna (2013) to me is one of the greatest sculptures I have seen in stone. He worked periodically on this sculpture for more than two years to create a masterpiece, with every hair on her head carefully carved. The one side is a beautiful face portrait of Sedna and on the reverse her hair becomes like kelp, with Sedna swimming with her fish. This sculpture to me is perfection.
From 1986–1995, Nigel Reading was an Art Sales Representative at Inuit Gallery in Vancouver, BC. In 1996 he became Co-Director, Inuit and Maori Art Curator at Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. Since 2019, Reading has served as an art consultant, representing Maori artists as well as Inuit sculptor Billy Gauthier.
Billy Gauthier fishing with Kara Montague, May 19, 2023Photo Kara Montague © the artist
Billy and I have always been friends, since I can’t even remember how long really. I've been lucky to know Billy and that he’s been willing to teach me how to carve. We both like to draw inspiration from what we do traditionally, and we also do a lot of things together, like being out on the land hunting, kayaking and fishing—which is what we’re doing right now when you called.
We both agree that artwork is just beauty. In our ideas of beauty, we see the same things. I really lucked out to have Billy in my life and to influence me and teach me, and even bounce ideas off of. It’s wonderful because when we go out and do things like fishing, sometimes it’ll spark an idea for a carving of his or something that I'm doing.
Kara Montague is a self-taught artist from North West River, NL, specializing in beadwork. Montague draws inspiration from the land, portraying the nature she observes during her hunting, fishing and hiking trips.
Billy Gauthier at the Muskrat Falls protests, 2016 Photo Ossie Michelin © the artist
In 2016 Billy went on a two-week hunger strike, along with Jerry Kohlmeister and Dee Saunders, in protest against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, which threatened to poison waters and surrounding land. During this time, I travelled with Billy, helping with social media and connecting with people. Billy lost 20 pounds on the hunger strike. I saw how he was such a good leader, how people really listened to him and how he has such a huge heart and so much compassion and care for his community.
One of my favourite sculptures is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2014). It’s a stereotypical head, but this guy is winking at you and he's smoking. I was like, “I know that guy!” To be able to capture that really speaks to someone who knows this world.
If you look at Billy’s activism or just have a conversation with him, he will talk about the land and nature, animals and the importance of culture. He really is someone that practices what he preaches. I’ve talked to him before about his process and he says he tries to make his work as fine and detailed as possible, and how often he just pushes the materials past its limits—if he breaks it, he will try it again. That mentality and effort of “break it until you make it” is really what allows him to go beyond, and I think that speaks a lot to his character.
Ossie Michelin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Montreal, QC, and North West River, Labrador. He specializes in print and online reporting, photography and video storytelling.
Billy Gauthier’s tools at Longhouse Labs at the University of Waterloo, ON, 2022 Photo Logan MacDonald
There are 23 artists included in the Bonavista Biennale this summer (August 19 to September 17), with a complement of different media and perspectives. Billy will be working with a really large fin whale skull that's about six by seven feet. He’ll be coming to the Peninsula to carve the piece on site for about a week, so it will be a sculpture coming to life with opportunities for people to see that process, and then the final piece will be on view for the duration of the Biennale.
The theme for this year's Biennale, Host, considers what it means to be a good host, and a good guest, especially in relationship with the natural world, and all of the beings that share the land and water. Billy’s work has always really spoken to that—not just the sculptures themselves, but his whole philosophy as a maker and artist who recognizes the importance of being on the land. I think that's a key part of his advocacy and his voice as an Inuit artist, speaking about artistic creation as an economic support that enables artists to also spend time on the land and to have a lifestyle that's very closely connected with the environment.
The fact that Billy's new sculpture for the Biennale is being created on site is really special, and speaks to the Biennale's ability to support production in a unique way. It's rare for artists to have access to a bone of this size, and we are so excited to watch it transform through Billy's artistic vision.
Rose Bouthillier is Artistic Director and Co-curator of the 2023 Bonavista Biennale in Newfoundland, and has also served as Curator (Exhibitions) at Remai Modern in Saskatoon, SK; Associate Curator and Publications Manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and Assistant Curator at Oakville Galleries in Ontario.
Billy Gauthier conducting a workshop at Longhouse Labs at the University of Waterloo, ON, 2022Photo Logan MacDonald
The first time I witnessed Billy’s work in person was his 2019 survey exhibition, Saunituinnaulungitotluni | Beyond Bone at The Rooms in St. John’s, NL. I was showing my work at the same time in a satellite space. It was a phenomenal exhibition. Each of his works are captivating, especially when installed right and given the space that they need. Each piece is a story—as an artist, Billy invites audiences to encounter those stories and to get a glimpse into his community and histories.
As the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Art at the University of Waterloo, one of the first things I started was an Indigenous artist residency program, Longhouse Labs, to support Indigenous artists who may or may not have had Western education pathways, and who are leaders in their communities. I invited Billy as an artist-in-residence for a two-week span. I got to know him personally and he's just such a lovely human; so passionate about his work, so knowledgeable. He is one of the most interesting artists I think I've ever met.
We ran a couple of workshops and he spoke to the students about his work and how he selects materials and how they come from the land. It was fantastic to watch how he embodies everything that he's committed to—even down to granular thinking about rocks and stones. He talked about his different hand tools for chiseling and his experiments, like heating up different stones so that they can bend to achieve those fluid movements with his carvings. He knows the minutiae of his practice inside and out.
I feel like this is Billy’s moment to be recognized. He's so technically skilled but he also has such a thoughtful approach to what he puts out into the world. I feel like his work communicates so much about where he comes from. Every decision that goes into his craft and the pieces that he creates is so intentional, and reflects his thinking about Indigenous epistemologies and the landscape. He's always also thinking about who came before him and honouring those legacies. Tthere's something so exciting about that.
Logan MacDonald, who co-nominated Billy Gauthier for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, is an artist, curator, writer, educator and activist who focuses on queer, disability and Indigenous perspectives. He is of mixed European and Mi’kmaw ancestry. Born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, his Mi’kmaw ancestry is connected to Elmastukwek, Ktaqamkuk. MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in Studio Arts and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Art at University of Waterloo.
Read more about the other shortlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.