Wildlife Art Journal

Shane Wilson: Honouring The Power of Wild Life
Canadian Artist Makes A Contemporary Statement With ‘Skullpture’
by Todd Wilkinson

Shane Wilson’s art does not conform to a known vernacular, neither within sculpture, nor carving, nor the contemporary language of found objects and mixed materials. However he is classified, Wilson’s creations stir up something deep within us—a mystery that cannot be explained easily in words. It could be the palmate shape of a moose antler that fans the inner flame of an archetypal memory, or the tusk of an Ice Age woolly mammoth, or the ivory gleam of a near-mythological narwhal inscribed with symbolism that reads like an ancient petroglyph. 

Gaia - moose antlers, bronze moose skull - 43x48x24in - 2009 - Shane Wilson

Gaia – moose antlers, bronze moose skull – 43x48x24in – 2009

Seeing them on the wall or under protective case, it is our sublime delight—and the artist’s challenge issued to us—to try and decode the hidden messages. Art and nature form a breathtaking confluence in an extraordinary, evocative portfolio “For me, the message is all about who we are as people today,” Wilson says.  “We live in a world of intriguing duality.”

Whether we dwell in a city or remote bush community; whether commuting to work in a skyscraper or making our living off the land; whether sojourning for subsistence in the wilderness or escaping into backyard woodlots, there is something ineffable about the headgear of animals that he reinterprets.

“Wilson’s work is a powerful evocation of this heritage but he goes much further in innovation and creativity. He produces stand alone objects of art that always seem fresh and surprising … words that seldom apply to the vast majority of art turned out these days.” – Robert Bateman

Under Wilson’s command, antler and ivory not only fill a room with ambiance and character; they flood an even larger space—the 21st century imagination—with a sense of adventure, compelling us to ponder our primitive connections to a distant past and our contemporary world.

Like a large landscape painting on the wall of a museum or the substantive heft exuding from a mass of bronze sculpture, Wilson’s work has a magnetic effect.  Regardless of its size, it can bestow even a great hall with a feeling of majesty.

For years, before making his home near the Pacific Ocean on Vancouver Island, he remained largely off the radar screen of collectors because the solace-loving artist resided in the isolated interior of the Yukon.

Wilson is making a name for himself and it is well worth our time to take notice. His transcendent blending of classical taxidermy with the fine art traditions of carving and foundry work are attracting attention from collectors and museums across the continent.  “When I think of carving, I think of the great European traditions of stone carving, and the Celtic tradition of carving in antler, wood and stone,” he says.

Celtic Confusion - moose antler - 25x33x15in - 1998 - Shane Wilson

Celtic Confusion – moose antler – 25x33x15in – 1998

The eminent Canadian nature artist Robert Bateman, who dwells on Salt Spring Island, near Vancouver, observes,  “Wilson’s work is a powerful evocation of this heritage but he goes much further in innovation and creativity. Rather than decorating a utilitarian object he produces stand alone objects of art that always seem fresh and surprising. Fresh and surprising are words that seldom apply to the vast majority of art turned out these days.”

Bateman says Wilson’s pieces should be considered within a larger context. “For tens of thousands of years the art of mankind functioned as decoration of objects – pots, paddles, canoes, weapons, dwellings and even human bodies.  The work was varied and rich and highly skilled,” he says. “This art of Neolithic and contemporary tribal peoples, to me, ranks with any art of world history.  Its inventiveness, rhythm and abstract design is as high in quality as early 20th century modernist art.  Artists such as Picasso and Modigliani acknowledge a debt to this so-called primitive art, which is not primitive at all but highly sophisticated.”

Take Wilson’s piece Gaia, for example.  The 109 X 122 X 69 centimetre sculpture brings all of Wilson’s signature elements to the fore—mixed media, ornate carving, asymmetrical design, and mesmerizing surface textures that spring from the form of a moose antler and skull.

His work defies the language of genre. Art historian David J. Wagner, author of American Wildlife Art, says Wilson’s “pure expressive design is what first hits me.”  The work, he notes, is drawn from life experience in the wild north yet informed by both Old World and New World three-dimensional masterworks that span the ages.

Grizzly 2 - bronze - 1of1 - 9x5.5x14 - 2007 - Shane Wilson

Grizzly 2 – Skullpture Series – bronze – 1of1 – 9×5.5×14 – 2007

“His designs seem to flow out of some sort of mystical connection.  Shane’s experiential aesthetic makes sense when considered in the larger comparable context of contemporaries such as William Morris (b. 1957) who, although his work clearly embodies readable iconography, also embodies a personal, anthropological twentieth-century kind of style,” he adds.

In layman’s terms, what Wagner means is that Wilson does not pander to an art market, churning out simple, pretty folk objects because he believes they will sell. 

Paradoxically, his success stems from the bold decision he has made to go his own way by pursuing substance over artifice.

Wilson explores the penetrating force that antlers, horns and ivory represent as symbols of life, death and renewal in ways that are analogous to—yet distinct from—warrior totems created by West Coast First Nations bands and the tribal masks of witch doctor and warlords, be they North American, African, Pacific island peoples or ancient Chinese.  

“As human beings, we derive a certain power in relation to the animals we hunt,” Wilson says.  “Fundamentally, it is the torch of life that is passed on.  We take a life in order to sustain our own and that of our family and community.”

Wilson’s personal journey is arguably as fascinating as the natural histories of the animals he borrows from with his found materials.

Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada in 1961, he notes that his generation coincided with the advent of the space race, which, in a few short years, would culminate with a walk on the Moon.  We all remember those first iconic pictures taken from space during the early missions, that, ironically, yielded more appreciation for the fragility and beauty of Earth.

The son of educators, current events and an appreciation for exotic cultures were infused in Wilson through osmosis.  His family, which moved several times during his childhood, always valued its access to the outdoors.

The Wilson clan witnessed firsthand what their countrywoman Joni Mitchell was lamenting in her song, “Big Yellow Taxi”, that offers the resonant lyric:  “Well, don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” 

Sportsmen, aboriginal peoples and environmentalists alike can relate to the disappearance of personal sacred places and the animals that inhabit them.  Wilson’s art helps us make sure we never forget.

“[His] carved antlers have such a redeeming quality. For me they reflect a glimpse of the deep, true nature of this planet.” – Grace de la Luna

“I remember living on the edge of development,” he says. “In Niagara Falls, the orchards behind our home and at the end of the street disappeared under bulldozer blades and houses took their place—it seemed a terrible crime to a four year old.” 

Duality (detail - close, top) - moose skull - 29x10x15in - 1997 - Shane Wilson

Duality (detail – close, top) – moose skull – 29x10x15in – 1997

At their next stop, a greenbelt in greater Toronto, the Wilsons watched the same thing happen to the fields where he and his brothers played.  This, in part, caused the family to head northwest father away from urban development. 

They landed in Sault Ste. Marie at the extreme edge of the Great Lakes, enjoying the loom of boreal wilderness that extends toward the Arctic tundra and the top of the world.

“In time, the outskirts of Sault Ste. Marie were developed and we moved again to rural Algoma.  My parents built a home on 80 acres of bush, rock and field on a bluff that was once the ancient shore of the confluence of three great lakes.”

The lesson is that Wilson, the artist, has profound empathy for those of us who long to disappear into nature whenever possible, and his art is, thus, an example of the treasure that awaits in exploration.

From those roots in Ontario, Wilson did not take a direct path to becoming a full-time carver and sculptor. Among his varied experiences, he labored on a dairy farm, became a line bottler in a brewery (for a day), served as an usher in a movie house, hustled as a door to door salesman, got hired to be an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, was a short order cook, enrolled in a military academy where he completed a year, then had a religious experience and entered a university seminary.  This, in turn, led him to the Yukon and spending a decade as an Anglican (Episcopalian) minister.

Such a resume might imply aimlessness.  It wasn’t.  Wilson simply didn’t want to settle for something trite and while away his life thinking about what might have been.

He is still spiritual, but when his time of religious mission ended, he went back to blue-collar work again in, of all places, a gritty open pit lead-zinc mine to make money for his family.  When the mine shut down, he got a job with social services as a family counsellor.

“His designs seem to flow out of some sort of mystical connection.” – David Wagner

After the mine re-opened, he returned to the grind and did not realize he was on the verge of reaching the place where he is today:  “When the mine shut down the second time, I wrote the layoff notices for everyone—including myself,” he says.   Wanting to stay in the north and searching for a way to pay the bills, he got hired as an employment counselor for a local college and traveled to the most northern settlement in the Yukon, Old Crow.

His epiphany was that, while he could relate to a wide variety of people, he needed to heed his own voice welling up inside him. A supportive family has made this possible. His wife of three decades, Miranda, recognized his gift for creating carved sculpture early on and is a steadfast pillar of encouragement. Their son Malcolm provides website advice and traveled with Wilson on a significant European tour, while daughter Ceilidh negotiated one of his first large commissions when she was only ten years old. And grandsons Douglas and Alexander love to visit their grandfather’s studio.

Shane Wilson working on Celtic Confusion, 1998

Shane Wilson working on Celtic Confusion

As a boy, a formal and informal orientation to art was nurtured by his mother, Geri, a painter, and his father, Bill, who pressed the first jackknife into his hands. “My mother taught me the rules of composition and explained the subtleties of colour theory on visits to art galleries during summer vacation trips,” he says. Seeing works by Canada’s esteemed, impressionist landscape painters, The Group of Seven, and an encounter with an enormous, surrealistic painting of the crucifixion by Salvador Dali left an indelible impression on him. 

In the Canadian West, Wilson would study at Art College and even teach carving on a campus in Alberta.  But the seeds of his fascination with antlers and horns were planted in high school when, for an art project, he mounted a cow skull that had been found in a pasture.  As with all things in Wilson’s life, it is his eclectic, eccentric background that continues to pay dividends.

“Shane has a very unique talent in his ability to envision the end result of a sculpture and then to implement it,” says collector Keith Levoir, an Alberta businessman who has commissioned work from Wilson. Levoir is an artist himself who carves avian subjects. “I have studied with other carvers that are well known in the world, but I would consider Shane to be the best I have ever seen.”

The genesis of his passion for wedding taxidermy with carving actually dates to piano lessons decades ago. “My piano teacher would disappear in the fall for a few weeks, returning to regale us with tales of his moose hunt.  Once he brought some steak knives with handles made from antler tines to show me.  I was entranced.  What power seemed to reside in the feel of those knives. After we moved to the country it was not uncommon to see moose racks affixed to outside walls above garage doors,”  he notes. “But it was not until I traveled to the Yukon and northern British Columbia, on my first assignment as a student minister, that I first encountered carved antler sculpture.”

Indeed, as Wagner notes, it is not surprising that Wilson’s work also finds appeal in Europe, for his style of skull mounts is derivative of those that still hang in the old hunting lodges that have served, for hundreds of years, as bare yet regal celebrations of quarries that have disappeared.

Wilson credits antler artist Maureen Morris as a primary inspiration and two Dene artists, Ray Ladue and Dennis Shorty, with introducing him to the more traditional, scenic form of antler carving.  Another decades-long supporting influence and mentor is his friend, artist and sculptor, Gerald Kortello who early on directed Wilson to Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.

Although his natural materials are prosaic, his philosophical approach with found objects is consistent with modern sculptors whose work is displayed at major contemporary art museums.  Mary Bradshaw, Gallery Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, says categorizing Wilson as a “wildlife” or “sporting” artist is far too limiting because his pieces appeal equally to urbanites that do not hunt. “A lot excites me about Shane’s work,” Bradshaw says. “This may sound contradictory, but I love the storytelling/narrative in his abstract pieces.  I think his strongest pieces are the abstracted ones.”

Self Portrait (detail - right 3-4) - musk oxen horn, bronze wolf skull - 14x23x11in - 2009 - Shane Wilson

Self Portrait (right 3-4 view) – musk oxen horn, bronze wolf skull – 14x23x11in – 2009

Consider his exquisite portrayals of swans, breaching humpback whales, and seahorses from antlers; his surreal, brilliantly-patinated depiction of a grizzly skull in bronze (part of an extensive, head-turning “Skullpture Series”), and the bighorn sheep wall mount that glistens as if it was chiseled from a fine gemstone.

“Just as a fossil uncovered does not mean death, but is evidence of life, the Skullpture Series is meant to reflect the architecture of being alive,” Wilson says.

On the most basic of levels, we look, and then pull closer, all the while beguiled and asking ourselves:  “How did he do that?

Akin to the legendary animist Mashona carvers of Zimbabwe, who “listen” to their stones, allowing nuanced features in the rock to help shape the direction of their work, Wilson takes his cues from the physical characteristics that are innate to every antler or piece of ivory. 

Wilson says that while some may find antler, horn and ivory to be limiting media, he sees instead endless three-dimensional possibilities. With an outbuilding full of material that he has meticulously gathered over the years—much the same way that Michelangelo collected special raw slabs of Carrara marble—he spends days, weeks, and months contemplating surfaces and squaring them with ideas that have been surging through his mind. The antlers have been scavenged from across the Canadian wilderness, the mammoth ivory from gold miners who stumbled upon them in placer operations, and the ivory from walrus or narwhal from Inuit hunters in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“This may sound contradictory, but I love the storytelling/narrative in his abstract pieces. I think his strongest pieces are the abstracted ones.” – Mary Bradshaw

This means that every Wilson carved sculpture that finds its way into a trophy room is laden with multiple layers of revelation, wrapped in a statement that speaks to our time. Grace de la Luna, curator of the Illuseum Gallery in Amsterdam, Holland, speaks to the allure of Wilson’s work that transcends geography.  “[His] carved antlers have such a redeeming quality,” she says.  “For me they reflect a glimpse of the deep, true nature of this planet.”

Sculptures featured: Gaia, Celtic Confusion, Yukon Seasons, Duality, Candle Ice, Skullpture Series, Grizzly 2, Tundra Swan, Self Portrait

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