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Labrador artist remains grounded by his surroundings


Billy Gauthier's work will be featured all summer at provincial museum

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Billy Gauthier has been gaining more and more acclaim as a sculptor over the years.

He's been praised as one of the best Inuit artists of his generation and has his work exhibited in galleries and shows across Canada.

Now, a collection of the North West River artist's work is being exhibited at The Rooms provincial museum in St. John’s, titled Saunituinnaulungitotluni: Beyond Bone. It's his first major exhibit in a public setting.

Gauthier explaining a piece to the assembled crowd at an artist talk at the Rooms on June 2.
Gauthier explaining a piece to the assembled crowd at an artist talk at the Rooms on June 2.

“It’s great to have an exhibition in my own province, it really does make a difference,” Gauthier told the Labrador Voice. “To get this type of recognition from local people, it feels great. I might actually go home and get a new hat, this one won’t fit anymore.”

Gauthier has been carving since 1996 and sold his pieces in Birch’s Gallery in Happy Valley-Goose Bay before meeting Nigel Reading, owner of the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. His first major solo exhibit there in 2010 saw all the pieces sell in 18 minutes.

The 40-year-old spends a lot of his time hunting and fishing when he isn’t working and that’s reflected in his art. One of the pieces in the exhibit, Fishing on my Mind, is of a man thinking about hauling a fish out of the water. Gauthier said the man is very much him, because fishing is always on his mind.

He said he’s humbled by the reaction to his artwork and still finds it a little surreal. He said living in North West River keeps him grounded.

“If feels really strange, to local people it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a local,” he said. “I could win a Nobel Prize and not be treated differently in North West River. It’s strange when I leave home; people come up to me and say that they know my work. I don’t know what to say.”

The Billy Gauthier exhibit runs at The Rooms until Sept. 2.

An emotional struggle

Billy Gauthier made national headlines a few years ago for reasons other than his artwork. He went on a hunger strike to protest the potential methylmercury poisoning of Lake Melville that could result from the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject.

Gauthier, along with Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister, only agreed to eat again after a meeting between Indigenous leaders and the provincial government. There, the province agreed to look into concerns and clearing the Muskrat Falls reservoir of vegetation, which could mitigate risk. Gauthier had not eaten in 12 days.

Now, two years later, the reservoir was not cleared and the concerns are still there.

Asked about the project, Gauthier becomes emotional. Tears run down his face.

“I remember getting a phone call that they actually agreed to our demands. I was ecstatic. I started eating again and after all of this, I thought ‘Wow, we as Inuit have a voice, we can really do something.’ But unfortunately as soon as it left the media, because there was no hunger strike going on anymore and the major protests weren’t going on, nothing happened.”

If you remove the hunting and the fishing, you remove the culture, he said. 

"We don’t have our language anymore, we don’t have our traditional clothing on a daily basis, we don’t have our religious beliefs. The one thing we do have is the land. We have that right now but it’s only holding on by a thread and, unfortunately, Nalcor is standing over us now with a pair of scissors. And they’re going to cut it because it means money."


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