Walking past Damien Ikuallaq’s carving shack in Cambridge Bay, you might hear power tools grinding away.
He spends at least 40 hours a week in his modest workshop – heated by a camp stove in the winter – forming animals out of stone.
“I do this full time. It beats most of the other jobs that I’m able to work,” he says, recounting his previous stints as an apprentice electrician and a labourer.
Ikuallaq, 29, has been selling his pieces to the Arctic Research Foundation, a Winnipeg-based private non-profit organization, for the past few years. He’s also been exploring opportunities to establish a studio in Cambridge Bay, which would help other artists gain exposure.
“I have the skills and I want to help build people up,” he says.
He began carving at age 18 under the guidance of a relative in Gjoa Haven who worked in serpentine.
“I pretty much started out just carving my cousin’s scraps and borrowing his tools,” Ikuallaq recalls. “We would hang out and talk about carvings and stuff like that. I just kept going.”
He is inspired by the spiritual carving style of Gjoa Haven, as produced by his grandfather, but he’s also branching into more figurative animals.
Ikuallaq works in a variety of media, such as mammoth tooth, whale tooth and bowhead whale bone, the latter being his favourite.
“But I haven’t had any in a while, a couple of years,” he says of the limited supply of bowhead bone.
Some of the material is very hard and rather unforgiving. It can take its toll on the tools of the trade.
“I have to replace (my power tools) all the time. They don’t last,” he says. “The bits and the actual rotary tools, they burn out pretty quickly… I can’t do quality work with dull bits.”
Creating detailed artwork is a point of pride for Ikuallaq.
“I don’t do basic carvings. Most of my work takes me a week to two weeks, or even a month to finish,” he says. “Mammoth tooth is difficult material to work with. It’s super hard and it’s brittle. They’re full of cracks so you have to stabilize it with a hardener.
“My first mammoth-tooth carving, I probably spent a couple of hundred dollars on Krazy Glue just to fill all the cracks and stuff,” he says, laughing. “One of the main things with the arts is that if people put that extra effort into it constantly they’ll realize that it starts to pay off much better for them.”