Radio Canada International
Shane Wilson- Unique Artist in a Unique Medium
By Marc Montgomery
Shane Wilson is a rare artist. Fascinated by the idea of carving at a young age, he has developed an art form that is almost unique to him alone.
Now an extremely accomplished sculptor, he works in the highly unusual medium of moose antlers, and horns from other animals.
As he points out, antler is a different material than horn, and requires a delicate touch. He says that with the development of more sophisticated power tools, such as the types of drills and polishers used by dentists, that the ability to carve moose antler has been made easier. This is especially so with the fine, intricate shapes and details he creates.
One must also realize that moose antlers are large, very large, heavy and awkward to manipulate, usually with a span of nearly two metres.
He often works on commission as was the case for Yukon Seasons which was commissioned by Adriano Bigotta, 1999. The piece is currently installed in the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon.
He says of this piece, “The theme of this moose antler and skull set is the four seasons of the Yukon. Winter and Spring are represented by a variety of sharply angled patterns on the left antler – snowflakes, ice fog, stars and the break-up of river ice and features an Alaska-Yukon moose, Yukon wolf and Sandhill crane. Summer and Fall are represented on the right antler by the swirling, curvaceous patterns of the sun, mountains, bushes and waterfalls and features three Grizzly bears, one fishing for Chinook salmon. The skull combines angled and curved patterns from all four seasons and features the Northern raven, Yukon’s official bird for all seasons.”
As an interesting aside, this particular piece has had an exciting history, having been stolen, recovered, survived a fire, and repaired after some accidents.
Because antler sets are each unique, like fingerprints in a way, an antler set may give him inspiration as to what and how to create within them. His own designs tend to be more, not abstract, perhaps allegoric would be more suited.
In Borealis and Oreithyia, names inspired by Greek gods of the north and mountain winds, he says, “The carved curves and swirls which flow between these mated antlers represent the phenomenal Yukon skies filled with the Aurora Borealis. I have many fond memories of laying on the ground gazing up as the multicoloured vortexes swirl, wrap, curl and whip across the night sky, periodically extending fingers of light straight down towards me, so close I imagined that by reaching up I could touch them with my own. The angled elements speak of powerful wind and mountainous height, while a smaller angled arrow on the left burr could be an abstract compass needle, pointing north.”
While his work with antlers is certainly striking, he also works with other animal horns such as Dall rams, and muskox.
His fascinating work has been featured recently in the prestigious Canadian arts magazine, Arabella, as a Canadian artist to collect.
Marc Montgomery: Shane Wilson, great to have you with me today!
Shane Wilson: Thanks Marc! Thank you for your interest in my art and for having me on your show.
Marc Montgomery: Shane, it is a tremendous medium in which you operate and we’ll get to that in just a minute. You are of course involved the ancient art of carving, but I am told you were influenced by art at a very young age? Tell me a little about that.
Shane Wilson: Both my mother and my grandmother were crafters, fine crafters. They taught me various skills: my grandmother was a knitter and craftsperson, my mother made fine art dolls, which were very particular, one off creations. They instilled in me the desire when I make something to make it right, to make it beautiful and purposeful, and to take my time.
Marc Montgomery: Tell me about the trip to the Halifax Museum where you saw some people making carvings of boats.
Shane Wilson: That’s one of my favourite memories from an early family trip out East. I was born and grew up in Niagara Falls and then Northern Ontario and every summer my parents would pack my two brothers, Kent and Jason, and I in the car and we would travel to various corners of Canada. One summer we went to the East Coast, visiting the Parliament building, legislatures, museums, galleries, etc. along the way. And one of my favourite memories from this trip was watching these two miniature boat builders create scale replicas of sailing ships, in the museum in Halifax. I thought it amazing that you could have a job working on sculptural objects like that. It was so impressive that I asked my Dad for a carving knife so that I could make one of those boats. He bought me a little jack-knife and a 4″x4″ post. I soon found myself defeated on the matter of turning that 4″x4″ post into a boat – as you can imagine, those little knives aren’t very sharp and they don’t last very long. But it whetted my whistle for carved sculpture.
Marc Montgomery: So, from that point, tell me how your art progressed to these amazing pieces that you create now?
Shane Wilson: As we do in life, we try out various careers, and part of my career took me to Northern Canada, to the Yukon and Northern B.C. I met there a most marvellous carver by the name of Maureen Morris, who carved antler. She turned moose and caribou antler into these amazing creations. And I thought, man, that’s what I want to do. I want to try that. And so, I did. Gradually over the years, I picked up the tools and the knowledge and made it my own.
Marc Montgomery: Tell me about the tools. How does one carve antler – especially in such an intricate manner and occasionally to incredible detail?
Shane Wilson: Antler in particular is a very difficult medium to work with hand tools, chisels and that kind of thing, so it really wasn’t available as an artistic medium until the 70’s, when powered electrical and air tools: grinders and micro-motor tools with specialized burrs became available. Think of your dentist, when he is busy ‘carving’ your teeth he’s using the same kinds of tools and technologies that I would use in making my work.
Marc Montgomery: Is antler different in texture and quality when you’re carving it from, say, ivory?
Shane Wilson: Very much so. They are related materials, but antler is more fibrous and tougher. Ivory, especially mammoth ivory, has a buttery smooth texture, so you can use hand chisels, but you can also use the dental tools as well. Also antlers can be quite large, some can be four feet tall by two or three feet wide. When you imagine carving them with tools equivalent in size to dental tools, you can understand why it sometimes takes several years to carve one antler.
Marc Montgomery: But you often have complete skulls with the antlers still attached. Is that rather harder to find as opposed to say, when antlers fall off?
Shane Wilson: The moose also perish for a variety of reasons, so some of the complete sets were found as a result. They may have died during a sparring match with another moose during the rut (breeding season), or possibly as a result of subsistence hunting. The head and antlers are either left in the bush or they’re brought out and stored in a garage or yard. Sometimes, I get a call and collect them.
Marc Montgomery: Do different sets of antlers inspire you to create different themes, or, what inspires you to create within those antler spaces?
Shane Wilson: Often I am commissioned to create a work, so when that happens, the person may come with a particular kind of theme that they want to see realized. Other times, I create work strictly from my own imagination. But in both cases, I employ what I call a theme of duality, relating to the left and right brain, or in the case of moose, left and right antlers. I’m a left handed person and grew up in the 60’s, a time when being left handed wasn’t fully accepted as normal; there weren’t a lot of accommodations made for left handed people at that time. So I learned about living in a world that was oriented completely opposite to my own. Why was I different? I became aware that we have two hemispheres in our brains which control various functions, mine were reversed. That got me interested in how the brain functions and determines who we are. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain? The premise is that a rational/logical person is ‘left brained’ and a creative/artistic person is ‘right brained’. Current research now shows that the brain’s hemispheres works together on most tasks, but confirms that there are unique characteristics of each hemisphere. What I like to do in my work is take angular and curved elements or shapes play them off against each other, the curvy shapes illustrating right-brained creativity, the angular, hard, mechanical shapes illustrating left-brained rationality.
Marc Montgomery: But when you’re creating these things is there anything within a set of antlers that says to you, “I want to go this way,” or “I might try this”, what do you decide goes where?
Shane Wilson: I am inspired by the shape of the antlers. Particular antlers or particular horns will lend themselves to a particular carving; there is an interaction between myself and the medium. When I make my own work, which is more non-representational or abstract, the design comes directly from the antler or horn. Borealis and Oreithyia, my latest work, is a completely abstract rendering of the northern lights and northern winds. This work consists of two antlers, side by side, that form a single sculpture. There are visual elements that cross between the antlers, joining them visually. These elements represent an abstract relationship between two beings, hence the name Borealis and Oreithyia. Boreas was the Greek god of the north. I changed his name slightly to Borealis to reflect the northern lights, the Northern Borealis – they are related words. Oreithyia was his wife, god of the north wind. The sculpture is their relationship, abstractly rendered.
Marc Montgomery: On a more technical note, Shane, some of the work within the antlers appears to be very delicate. Have you been working on something and something accidentally breaks and you have to change it?
Shane Wilson: Well, I go very carefully and very slowly, so that doesn’t often happen. But occasionally a piece will break off or a crack will develop in a way that I didn’t anticipate and so, yes, the sculpture changes a little bit. I had been working on Yukon Seasons for three years and it was almost finished. I brought it in to the house from the workshop for some reason. Long story short, my dog found it when we were out of the house and chewed part of the skull. It was devastating, initially I thought the sculpture was ruined. But after reflecting, I decided to rework that part of the sculpture. I think it is more interesting as a result, so I almost have to give my dog partial credit for the finished work.
Marc Montgomery: I don’t recall seeing anything quite like this before, are there other people who do anything similar to this?
Shane Wilson: There are antler carvers and people who work in horn, but I like to think that I have taken the medium in a new direction and taken it from more of a craft and turned it into a fine art.
Marc Montgomery: Well it certainly is beautiful and amazing and I thank you very much for your time today, Shane Wilson.
Shane Wilson: Thank you, Marc!