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Yellowknife painter-turned-sculptor shares his creative process

One of Sabourin's latest works with the theme of Dene drummers and hand games, to be displayed at the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver. photo courtesy of John Sabourin

John Sabourin has been sculpting in soapstone and chlorite for a quarter-century.

Yellowknife sculptor John Sabourin works on a soapstone bear at the NWT Arts Pop Up Gallery in the Centre Square Mall Wednesday. Sabourin began painting in art school, switching to carving as he was more inspired by the medium which many of his friends and contacts were also engaged in. Emelie Peacock/NNSL photo

The Fort Simpson-born artist now lives in Yellowknife and works out of Frozen Rock Studio in Kam Lake. His work is featured in galleries across Canada and he has travelled abroad with his sculptures. Sabourin will next show his work as part of the travelling artistic showcase From the North, coming to the city Oct. 27.

Yellowknifer sat down with Sabourin to speak about his work and his life as a Northern carver.

Q: Tell me about the type of art that you do

I carve stone, and I teach in stone as well. I teach in soapstone but I carve in B.C. chlorite.

Q: How did you get started?

I started off painting, and I went to study painting in Victoria for three years and came out a carver. (There was) a lot of 3D design and art and pottery and cement structures and fiberglass structures. Nobody was carving stone in college, I was the only one carving stone.

A lot of my friends they carve, it was just a slow, sliding in. Then going up to Nunavut. I got to do a lithography course in Cape Dorset and I got to see a lot of carvers. So I thought wow that's really cool. And I got to go inside the co-op and look at hundreds of carvings and that just always stuck in the back of my mind while I was painting. I started playing with soapstone and eventually got hooked.

Q: What is it that draws you to carve?

It’s always been a challenge to have a blank screen, a blank canvas, a blank rock and what you can create out of that rock is challenging. When I do it I always thought I want to be better than my last carving, my last painting. What can I do to improve.

Q: Walk me through the process from a slab of stone to a carving.

I just grab a marker and I draw, for cutting it out with a handsaw or an electric saw. And then it's cutting negative spaces and then you have a contour of an animal or whatever you're going to carve. Once you have that it's filing with different files, using Italian rifflers made for hard stone, made for marble.

Q: What inspires your carving?

Pretty much the common raven, some abstract with the raven calling out to the Northern lights. All Northern themes.

Q: Has your style of carving changed over the years?

Yeah, I'm doing more and more abstract form. With the Northern lights and with the ravens head too, and trying to incorporate other animals as well. I'll sometimes do a little bear and I'll put it inside the mouth of a raven.

Q: Do you ever find it challenging to be an artist in Yellowknife?

The challenge is selling carvings here in Yellowknife because people want just little carvings. And the majority of carvings I'll do are big ones. So then 90 per cent of carvings are going south, sending them to galleries.

Q: When you create your art, do you have a message that you want to share?

I'm slowly moving to a direction of awakening the spirit. There's a carving of a boat I did that has different animals and they are shape-shifting. The bear is half-man and he's trying to wake up the people around him.

Trying to find a balance between commercial pieces and doing stuff for myself too. I just sent some pieces over to Vancouver, to the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver. There's a series I've been working on, it has to do with drumming and Dene handgames.

Q: What does waking up mean to you?

Waking up is just awakening the spirit, because the spirit has been sleeping so long. We haven't been paying attention to it.

Q: Do you feel awake?

I do actually. A lot of it has to do with my art, then I've been lucky enough to do a lot of teaching and I've been involved with a lot of shows, travelling shows as well, and meeting a lot of artists in the circumpolar regions as well. It was nice to meet with a lot of cultures, talk about your art and talk about your traditions.

Are you a Yellowknife artist interested in speaking about the work you do? Get in touch with us at