- Nation: Inuit
It’s at the point where dreams, imagination, and memories merge that Billy Gauthier’s work comes to life, delving into cultural nuances and tapping into a hearty dose of past experiences. His style is a mishmash of methods and mediums, ranging from realistic to surreal and beyond. Each piece is a standalone contribution to Inuit culture, imbued with unique stories and parallel histories.
Born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, in 1978, Gauthier filled his early years with drawing exercises and portrait sessions – hobbies that garnered praise from friends and family and marked the starting point of his artistic calling. At 18, he visited his cousin’s studio for an introduction into sculpting and carving. Afterwards, he went home and produced his first piece, an Inuk face.
It didn’t take long for Gauthier to decide to become a full-time artist, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the creative cause. He participated in small exhibitions until he was headhunted by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in 2007 which launched his career on a much larger stage. Today, he has work in some of the finest Inuit art collections in the world, including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. “I’ve been really fortunate where my pieces went,” he says. “My pieces have travelled a lot more than I have.”
That’s not to say Gauthier hasn’t travelled much at all. In fact, quite the opposite. He’s lived and travelled across Canada, finally settling in North West River, a small town of 500 people close to where he grew up. This area belongs to the Nunatsiavummiutut Inuit but, like many Inuit, Gauthier does not speak the cultural language, though it’s a pressing goal for him to learn his native tongue.
He’s likely to learn quickly, as the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador is a dedicated Inuit territory preserved for traditional hunting. The area, meaning “Our Beautiful Land” in Inuit, sprawls out across 72,500 square kilometres, taking in all manner of landscapes needed for Inuit survival. Nain, the administrative centre, plays host to the vast majority of native speakers – people who Gauthier will no doubt encounter on a regular basis.
Gauthier’s daily life has many ties to traditional Inuit customs. When he’s not carving, travelling, or reading about science (another of Gauthier’s interests), he can often be found fishing or hunting ptarmigan with his daughter, Chloe. Like many native cultures, Inuit traditions have evolved over time to accommodate modern day needs, but Gauthier still prefers to hunt in the traditional way, like most of the people in his region. He’s crafted his own naluk, or harpoon and spear, with a wooden shaft and steel tip – a combination of materials that seldom breaks.
His hunting experiences are evident in his artwork, too. “I love to sculpt different animals,” he says. “Especially ones I’ve had a connection with from hunting.”
Connections with daily life are familiar throughout Gauthier’s work, which more often than not encompasses his passions and thoughts. He often includes spiritual images in his pieces: shamans with amulets and drums, spirits expelling the breath of wind, and hunters and sacrificed animals are regular centrepieces in his carvings. These aren’t just personal productions, though. They resonate with Inuit peoples on a much larger scale, too. “My own spiritual belief is in a way similar to traditional beliefs,” he says. “They believed that animals have a spirit the way people do, and I truly believe that.”
Gauthier also incorporates legends and folklore into his work, stories that highlight his peoples’ connection to the land. One such story is that of the Sedna, a powerful woman with a beluga tail who rules the sea and animals. “The Inuit, because they live off the ocean so often, believe she is a very powerful spirit they would have to respect,” Gauthier says. Hunters praise her when they are successful and curse her when they starve.
Gauthier effortlessly captures the “Two Sides of Sedna” – one side smiling and generously holding out a fish; the other side stern and menacing. Gauthier’s favourite piece, though, is “A Trapper’s Dream,” which pays honour to his grandfather who died shortly after Gauthier’s birth. “I was told a lot of stories about him,” he says. “I imagine him in his tilt [a one-man trapping cabin], dreaming of lots of furs. It’s a figure of a little Inuk man with a bunch of furs over his shoulder.”
“Closer” is also a firm favourite of Gauthier’s, portraying a couple made from moose antler. Their surreal, elongated arms come together gracefully in a hand-hold; the man’s lips hovering above the neck of the woman.
These three pieces are light – jovial, almost – but this isn’t the case with all of Gauthier’s work. In fact, he has produced a collection of much darker pieces touching on demons of the spirit world and modern-day monsters: alcohol, processed food, and environmental destruction. In one piece, an Inuk face sadly eyes three salmon, the first plump and whole, the second only partial, and the third a skeletal shell. Gauthier’s aim was to mimic the state of the rivers, once plentiful with splashing salmon.
This crossover of Inuit traditions and the modern world is a common occurrence in Gauthier’s carvings, proffering an insight into how the culture works in the present day. The materials he uses reflect this, too, combining raw bone, antler, and ivory captured from the local lands. His favourite material is serpentine, a dark green stone that fractures easily but allows for exquisite detailing. It’s perfect for carving his miniature pieces, the smallest of which boasts caribou legs that are only a millimetre wide. Gauthier enjoys working in the miniscule scale: “It forces you to relax yourself,” he says. “If your heart is beating too fast, it can ruin your entire piece.”
Like much of traditional Inuit art, his pieces rely on the colours of the materials they are carved from, void of any paint or manmade dyes. He links his use of natural whites, browns, and blacks to the landscape deeply connected with the Inuit peoples. “In the north, everything is blanketed in snow. It all has to do with shapes and shadowing.”
Gauthier’s work savours and celebrates the traditions and lives of Inuit peoples, but it also allows an insight into how certain customs persevere in the modern day. His intricate carvings bring Inuit culture to life, revelling in legends and folklore – stories that will continue to flourish for many years to come.