An idiosyncratic site for a masterclass in Alaskan Stone Art is Function Junction, a semi-industrial area about 8km south of the Whistler ski-resort in British Columbia. In behind a snowmobile shop in a construction storage yard, stand two containers separated by a workshop area covered by a flat timber roof.
It is a normal Whistler morning in winter, zero degrees Celsius, surprisingly no cloud on the mountains so the ski trails of the Whistler bowl side stand out clearly against the sky to the north east.
There is a man in what seems full winter working regalia, covered in dust, wearing an industrial dust mask working at a block of stone, on a wooden bench, with a grinder. We walk over the still semi-frozen ground and meet him half way, as he removes his hat, mask and glove to greet us. His name is Daryl, he is a stone carver, originally a master detail painter from Abbotsford east of Vancouver and now, with his wife, a local and a member of the Alaskan Stone Art artisanal team assembled by Jon Fathom, whose showroom we visited in Art Gallery Row, Whistler. His bas-relief is being carved in purple pyrophillite.
Under the roof we can hear a grinder or stone cutter working away. We are led across to a thick plastic sheet that hangs in front of the inner workshop. Entering as the sheet is drawn away, to the left is a man working on one of two stone blocks. In front of us is a large white marble blocked out statue of a polar bear with three cubs. To the right is a larger block of marble nearly 1.5 metres high, 3 metres long and maybe 1 metre wide, balanced on logs-a really challenging opener in Alaskan Stone Art.
Jon Fathom emerges from behind the block and bids welcome, obviously pleased that there is such interest in this workshop of Alaskan Stone Art artisanal masters. He introduces us to the third carver working today, Andrew, a peaceful looking and openly enthusiastic young man, originally from Prince George. He had studied art before coming down the 800 km to Whistler from a town that exists apparently solely for the wood-pulp industry. His work today is on an a Canadian blue anhydrite block from which a polar bear is emerging. This block has received 4 days of his attention and he hopes to complete it in another 10 days. We are shown a nearly complete ‘black’ bear that shines with a deep green like dark serpentine, when washed with icy water from a bucket. Its new life arose from a block of rare dark Brucite.
Standing next to the bear is another large blocked bear in Canadian red fossil limestone. Daryl and Andrew talk about the beauty in the rocks they are carving, discussing the veins and compositions of the stone with a knowledge essentially learned to enable them to avoid failure and to create the finest sculptures.
Jon takes us on a tour of this modern day Alaskan Stone Art sculptors workshop, the only difference with those of renaissance Italy being the availability of electricity for the cutters and grinders. It is, as then, firstly the selection of the stone block, then feeling the life within it before removing the overburden to give life to the sculpture. He talks of the design for the polar bear to ‘walk out’ of the still unblocked large marble slab with its head turned to the right. He shows the mother bear and her three cubs now emerging from the 3 metres block that was first begun 15 months ago.
Around the workshop area are large boxes half full of bits of stone of virtually all colours, all stone from the North West. Finding another bucket of water, he washes the dull offcuts that immediately shine with colours and he proudly picks them up, handing across a piece of gold marble that will become part of an Inuit Inuksuk. Nothing is wasted.
The obvious love for the stone ensures that these men work patiently and peaceably in the icy air, at one with the stone and their tools. We are in the company of young men who are already, through their creations, human treasures of Alaskan Stone Art.