Local students learn the ancient craft of soapstone carving

About 30 enthusiastic First Nations, Metis and Inuit students from Red Deer’s St. Francis of Assisi Middle School and St. Thomas Aquinas Middle School got to learn about soapstone carving first hand in a two hour workshop recently.

Instructor Robert Cahill, from Central Arctic Services Ltd. in Edmonton, ran the session during which students designed, carved and polished their own soapstone carving. Owls, polar bears, turtles and hearts are the most popular carvings with the students.

Always fascinated by the art, Cahill learned his soapstone carving skills while watching and working with traditional Inuit carvers in Nunavut. “I actually brought a couple of carvers down from Nunavut at first. I took them around and brought them into schools and then after three or four years of watching them I started doing it on my own. I learned from them and thought, I can do that, and now I do carving in Gjoa Haven in Nunavut (where Cahill spends his summers). I love it.” Although he adds, that since he spends his winters based in Edmonton and spends more time teaching, he is carving less.

Soapstone carving is an art form unique to the Arctic, says Cahill, and “Like a lot of art forms, soapstone carving takes on a life of its own as the animals or whatever emerge from the stone. You start off with that piece of rock, and when you look at it, you can visualize what it is; it’s a creation. In Inuit culture soapstone carving goes back thousands of years, and was often done by the shamans (the medicine men). Carvers in Gjoa Haven can sell their work in Vancouver or New York for as much as $5,000. It’s a very popular art form up north.”

While traditional soapstone carving uses stone found in the Canadian Arctic, for his classes Cahill provides the students with soapstone from Brazil which doesn’t have as many impurities in it and is softer and easier to shape for the students. This way they can complete a small carving in a couple of hours.

“If I brought soapstone down from Nunavut, it would take them all day, eight hours, because it’s a hard rock. They wouldn’t have the patience for it.”

Students first choose their design and carve a rough outline into the stone (about two inches square and three-quarters of an inch thick) with a tiny file.

Then, using larger and rougher files, they carve out the shape of whatever they are carving. While shaping with a rough file, small particles of the stone come off as a talcum powder-like dust so everyone has to wear a mask to filter it out. They also wear gloves to protect their hands from the metal files.

Once roughed out, finer files are used to smooth out the carving, which is then further smoothed out with sandpaper. The final step involves coating the carving in petroleum jelly and polishing with a rag to bring out the colours in the stone. Final details, like eyes, symbols or the initials of the carver, can then be added if the carver wishes.

Ian Stang, a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi, was one of the organizers of the workshop.

“It’s a goal to offer unique experiences to our First Nations students. It’s also an opportunity to do something hands-on,” he says. “We’ve never done it before, it’s the first time we’ve tried this, but it looks like it’s working out well. It’s kind of cool, and the kids get to keep what they make.”