Sometimes it’s the world around artist Billy Gauthier that inspires him to create and sends him looking for the perfect stone to carve: the soft wing of a ptarmigan, the glistening belly of a char or the creased skin of an Innu elder.
Many times, however, it’s the stones that call to him, whispering to him what they’re destined to become.
“It’s very similar to looking at the clouds — you know how you stare at the clouds for a while and come up with shapes of an animal or a person? I’ll look at the stone and then come up with an idea for that stone,” Gauthier explained.
Gauthier, 32, was born to create. Growing up in Labrador, he started off sketching as soon as he was old enough to hold a pencil, he said, doing mostly portraits and faces. His mother, something of an artist herself, encouraged him to try carving, although he admits he was reluctant to try it, thinking it would be too difficult to chip away at a hard stone to make art.
One day, when he was 17, Gauthier relented and went to visit his cousin, renowned Labrador artist John Terriak, at work.
“He was doing a bunch of carvings and he didn’t have the time to teach me, but he did say I could watch for an hour or two,” Gauthier said. “At the end of the day, he handed me a little piece of stone and a couple of files, and I went home and made my first piece that night. I worked on it all through the night.”
The piece was a tiny soapstone face inlaid in a hood, and Gauthier presented it to his impressed mother for Mother’s Day. He also took the piece to Herb Brown, owner of Birches Gallery in Goose Bay, for critiquing. When Brown told him he reckoned he’d be able to sell the carving, Gauthier returned home and got to work. His very first sale, not long after, was to his boss at the gas station where he worked. He earned $140 for the piece.
These days, Gauthier’s pieces fetch between $2,000 and $10,000 each, and are counted among some prestigious collections, including that of former French president Jacques Chirac, a collector of native art. Chirac wrote Gauthier a letter after acquiring the piece — an Inuit mask representing sea animals — telling him how much he loved the work, and how he had given it a prominent position among his collection.
Gauthier’s first solo exhibition, a 25-piece collection called “Visions from Labrador” and held at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver last fall, sold out in about 19 minutes.
“I was quite nervous,” Gauthier admits. “I was in a restaurant having breakfast — because they don’t like the artist to be at the opening, for a number of reasons — and I got a phone call from my mother, who was there, about half an hour after it opened. I thought something was wrong, that nothing was selling, but she told me it had already all sold out.”
“It’s very similar to looking at the clouds — you know how you stare at the clouds for a while and come up with shapes of an animal or a person? I’ll look at the stone and then come up with an idea for that stone.” - Billy Gauthier
Gauthier generally sculpts in caribou and moose antler, serpentine, alabaster — much of which he quarried himself while living in New Brunswick — and anhydrite, and uses diamond tools and handmade push chisels for fine details. With a background that includes Inuit, Innu, Mi’kmaq, French, English and Scottish, he chooses traditional Labrador themes for the most part, including hunting and fishing, music and folklore. An avid hunter and trapper, he’s often inspired by the animals he hunts, like ptarmigan and caribou.
While he often carves from memory, he’ll also take photos of the animals, to make sure he gets the proportions right.
“Sometimes, actually, I’ll just haul it out of the freezer,” he said with a laugh. “With ptarmigan, they actually freeze better if you don’t pluck them, so they’re intact.”
He’s had a number of pieces to which he’s felt particularly connected, including a small alabaster and serpentine carving called “A Trapper’s Dream,” depicting a trapper carrying an arm load of fur, inspired by his grandfather. The piece was one that sold in the “Visions from Labrador” show.
“When visiting my grandmother, she would tell stories of my grandfather trapping,” Gauthier explained in his artist statement for the piece. “He was a great trapper who worked very hard, but no matter how hard he worked sometimes he was forced to take home far fewer furs than he had hoped. He spent many weeks and even months on his trap lines travelling through harsh weather. I often wondered what he thought about before he fell asleep at night and what he would dream.”
It’s his pride in his Labrador culture that leads Gauthier to choose native themes, he said.
“I’m really proud of my culture and I like to show it off as much as possible,” he said. “I want as many people to learn about it as I can possibly show.”
Late last month, Gauthier was honoured by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council with the CBC Emerging Artist Award for 2010. The award recognizes new and undisputed talent, and is awarded each year to an emerging artist, group or arts organization that has earned significant recognition for a piece of work or has made a large impact on the arts scene.
In his acceptance speech, Gauthier dedicated the award to his nine-year-old daughter, whom he says also has a keen interest in art.
Calling the award “an incredible honour,” Gauthier, despite his success, said he’s still humbled to be recognized for his work.
“I’ve still got to pinch myself a lot of time,” he says.