Arabella Magazine

Transforming the Unexpected: Artists To Collect – Shane Wilson
written by Brett Anningson

Borealis and Oreithyia - moose antlers - 52x30x18in - 2015 - Shane Wilson

Borealis and Oreithyia (detail) moose antlers – 52x30x18in – 2015

Shane Wilson works with what is already present in the unusual materials he finds. He sculpts and carves antlers, tusks and horns in a way which accentuates their natural beauty – setting them free in creative ways. “I am inspired by the inherent beauty within,” Shane explains. “Each piece is unique and forms its own natural background for my abstract design. They help to give form to my thoughts and feelings about consciousness, existence and meaning.”

He comes by his gifts naturally. His mother painted and made high-end custom dolls, while his grandmother taught him how to knit and make crafts from an early age. “Their focus on ensuring that we understood the importance of doing the job well and making sure we gave every project our best effort was a lesson that has guided my approach to all my work,” says Shane.

Dall Sheep Duality (detail - 3-4r) - dall sheep horns, skull - 16.5x23x9in - 2004 - Shane Wilson

Dall Sheep Duality – dall sheep horns, skull – 16.5x23x9in – 2004

Vacations always included trips to museums and art galleries. He recalls being captivated by magnificent original art in whatever medium.

“As a young lad of eight, I remember seeing Salvador Dali’s painting Santiago El Grande in the Beaverbrook Gallery, and being mesmerized by the scale, craftsmanship and transcendent quality of the piece, even though I may not have understand the meaning Dali was trying to convey.

At the Halifax Maritime Museum, I was enthralled by a group of men behind a glass partition who were building scale model sailing ships from scratch.

After that visit I convinced my Dad to get me a jackknife and a block of wood, so I could be a carver as well. The wooden 4″ x 4″ post my Dad provided proved a bit much for a young boy to whittle into a sailing ship, but my whistle had been whetted for the creation of carved sculpture.”

No surprise that art was Shane’s favourite class in school. And his favourite medium was papier maché. “The thought that I could create a three-dimensional object from nothing but old newspapers and paste was an eye opener,” he says. “I remember collecting old newspapers door-to-door in the neighbourhood, so I could create my own papier maché dinosaur at home.”


At Home in the Natural World

Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Shane and his family moved to the small town of Bar River near Sault St. Marie. Growing up in a largely rural area with a definite northern exposure gave Shane a deep connection to the wilderness. “It was a perfect place for my attraction to natural forms to take root, and it was here that my fascination with horns, antlers and bones was born,” he says. “Thinking back, it seems like everyone in town had a set of moose or deer antlers in their yard and, while I know that isn’t the case, there was no shortage of opportunities to study them and appreciate the beauty they held.”

The journey led Shane to the Anglican Priesthood, taking him even farther north while serving congregations in small towns in northern British Columbia and the Yukon. He retained his passion for art and continued drawing and painting, usually learning through books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Big Horns Ram-Shatter and Melt - big horn sheep horns - 24x14x7in - 2010 - Shane Wilson

Big Horns Ram-Shatter and Melt – big horn sheep horns – 24x14x7in – 2010

“During my first posting in the mid-‘80s, I encountered antler carving for the first time in the work of renowned carver, Maureen Morris, from Atlin, BC. I was immediately taken with the beauty of her work, but also how the medium itself reaffirmed a connection to the natural world, and presented so many ways to express my own creativity. Over the next few years, I gathered the basic tools and stockpiled found antlers, then started carving. Eventually, my wife Miranda suggested I focus on carving and set the paints aside. She saw, before I did, that this was where I would have the most enjoyment and best channel my creativity.”

Shane left the priesthood in the early 1990s and worked at other jobs on and off to pay the bills, all the while continuing to carve. As his artistic reputation became known in the Yukon, commissioned opportunities presented themselves. Locally at first, then from outside the territory, and even other countries. The last 20 years have seen mostly commissions; a collaborative endeavour Shane truly enjoys.

Recently, he struck out in a different direction by creating work that was just for him, Borealis and Oreithyia. By his own admission, the process of producing this piece has brought a new energy and immediacy. Working on a project that is only for him, he can explore ideas and concepts in form that he has been thinking about for a long time. “One of the things that struck me about art while I was growing up,” Shane recalls, “was the unique world each painting or sculpture seemed to contain. A world I could imagine escaping into, inhabiting. My childhood travels and experiences growing up in small town Ontario planted the seed, but it took me several more years to realize I had the ability to create these worlds.”


The Nitty Gritty of Antler Carving

“My studio is a sanctuary,” says Shane, “a place where I can leave my left brain world behind and lose myself in right brain creativity. In the studio, I abandon myself to the creative process.”

His work is informed by the natural sculptural shapes of antlers and bones, to which Shane brings his own internal sense of duality. It is a beautiful partnership between natural form and an artist’s vision. The chosen media imposes limitations – which then present challenges!

Tundra Swan - moose antler, 10x9x4in, 2005 by Shane Wilson

Tundra Swan – moose antler, 10x9x4in, 2005

He muses, “Like many artists, I think my designs are my own and my medium helps make them unique and recognizable. I have a huge visual memory; if I’ve seen something somewhere before I won’t repeat it. Being original is very important to me. But I also think we need to be patient and absorb all the art and culture we can along the way. That would be my one bit of advice, take time to learn how to make something well, and find your voice. Keep going, persist.”

Shane tries to source materials in the most ethical way possible, so he repurposes shed antlers or gets them from sustenance hunters. A key first step is sitting back, looking at the antlers and thinking about what is below the surface. Shane designs the patterns in his head, then sketches them out. Next, he sands the surface, using coloured pencil to draw the design on the antler. As soon as it “sings” to him, he starts to carve out negative spaces with the drill and saw. The carved surface is roughed out with large carving burrs on flexible shaft grinders, then refined with smaller burrs on micro motor grinders – similar to dental drills. Lastly, the piece is sanded and finished with a protective satin acrylic spray.

“The antler medium doesn’t lend itself to hand work,” says Shane, “so I need to carve in relief using power tools. I like to think I am working to carve light and shadow. Perhaps the hardest thing is the time commitment. It can take years to work through a piece from idea to finished product and, because I believe so strongly in giving everything I have to each piece, I usually only work on one piece at a time.”


Of Themes and Life

“The north has obviously influenced me,” says Shane. “Not that I am a “northern” artist, because my work isn’t northern in the classic sense, but more the closeness to the land and the access to the natural world. The movement of northern life through the seasons; the inevitable cycles of rebirth and renewal; the legends and stories. All of this has helped me become who I am today and has guided my art.”

Canada Winter Games - Northern Torches - caribou antler - 20x32in ea - 2006 - Shane Wilson

Canada Winter Games – Northern Torches – caribou antler – 20x32in ea – 2006

As a child, Shane read the story Paddle to the Sea, about a young boy who carved a small wooden canoe and left it on a snow bank in the spring. As the snow melted, the canoe journeyed from a remote northern Ontario town, into the Great Lakes and eventually to the sea. The idea of creating something which would then have a life of its own, beyond the life of its creator, fascinated Shane.

“When Whitehorse, Yukon was awarded the 2007 Canada Winter Games, I was chosen to create a set of three caribou antler torches for the relay leading up to the Games, one for each of the northern Territories. My own ‘paddle to the sea’ experience. The torches embarked on staggering journeys totalling over 100,000 miles, by every conceivable means, visiting every community and significant landmark in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. When the torches returned to Whitehorse a year later for the Opening Ceremonies, the experience was deeply meaningful to me – my creations had ‘paddled to the sea’ and lived their own fantastic adventures.”

Duality is a central and recurring theme. Shane credits this largely to being a left-handed person in a world designed for the right-handed. That sense of duality inspires a strong attraction for working with antlers which normally have two sides, sometimes perfectly mirrored, but most often not. Much like the left brain/right brain reality in humans. “It’s unusual to find someone perfectly balanced between the two,” says Shane. “It’s not necessary for being a creative and successful person. Likewise, a set of antlers doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced to offer an opportunity for creating something beautiful or to be beautiful in their own right. I feel incredibly fortunate to be making this kind of sculpture. Like I’m firing on all cylinders, I’m fully engaged. And, it’s extremely gratifying when people appreciate the work.”

Sculptures featured: Borealis and Oreithyia, Big Horns Ram, Gaia, Tundra Swan, Yukon Seasons, Short Eared Parliament,  Duality, Seahorses, Self Portrait, Dall Sheep Duality, Wolf-Pine Beetle Galleries

Comments are closed.