by Shane Wilson
Rare, those moments that change everything.
My world changed completely one summer upon a visit to Whitehorse’s Yukon Gallery. Before me on the gallery wall were presented breathtakingly stunning sculptural forms, fantastic, curvaceous birds made beautiful in carved antler by Maureen Morris. The year was 1985.
I have been hooked ever since on contemporary carved antler sculpture.
Maureen Morris discovered her artistic calling early. In Grade One she wowed the teacher with a plastercine cow, modelled to six-year-old perfection; her teacher declared it best in the class. From then on, Maureen would “keep art in mind” as a career choice, making the decision to persue commercial (graphic) art after high school, “since that seemed the most common way to make a living as an artist at the time.” The Vancouver School of Art (better known today as Emily Carr University of Art and Design), accepted the aspiring artist and Maureen began her art education in earnest, absorbing everything with delight, in her element at last. The year was 1964.
Art school in the 60’s was about acquiring hard skills, after which the students were free to create without regard to ‘ism’. According to Maureen, “The teachers were very good, they knew what they were talking about. After First Year, we chose our own area in which to major and teachers gave very concrete instruction. They showed us how to do things.” Maureen got hooked “making things” and decided to major in clay sculpture (not pottery). “You needed to learn how to work the clay accurately from a model. There was a lot of help if you wanted it, but it wasn’t forced on you. If you became good at portraying accurately what was in front of you, you could go on to do anything you wanted.”
Maureen enjoyed the comradery of art school, “There was so much positive energy, and in the pub after school there was a lot of art conversation filled with wit and laughter.” Upon graduation in 1969, she recalls, “I didn’t know how I was going to make a living as an artist, but knew I was going to keep working at it.” Meantime, Maureen sold clothing at a local dress shop.
In 1972, a company called New World Jade opened its doors, hoping to exploit ‘Polar Jade’, the wonderful nephrite resource discovered in 1969 on Ogden Mountain, near the British Columbia-Alberta border, in western Canada. They planned to train, then employ local artisans to create jade sculpture (northern–not arctic–bears and birds), based on the co-operative model pioneered a decade earlier by John Houston for Canada’s Inuit artisans.
When a friend of a friend mentioned the start-up operation, Maureen applied immediately and was hired; she dropped the dress business and forever turned to carving. She was not alone. Several other prominent Canadian sculptors got their start at New World Jade, many still working in the medium today, among them Deborah Wilson and Alex Schick, also graduates of the Vancouver School of Art.
Maureen admits that jade was a difficult medium to carve, “My job was to make simple forms on the 8″ carbide grinding wheel. What could be accomplished was pretty limited because there were no air tools for precision grinding. It was clammy and cold standing there in gum boots, rain gear, goggles and mask. The jade, held tightly to my body, chattered against the wheel and my hands ached. I liked the finished pieces, but I didn’t like the process.”
It was in jade that Maureen began carving birds. Simply beautiful, curvaceous creatures, constrained by an 8″ carbide circumference. Deborah Wilson rememebers “Maureen’s wonderful flowing forms that worked so well with jade. She had a gift!” adding, “she was easily one of the most skilled and productive sculptors in the group.” The sculptors were paid $2.25 an hour.
New World Jade shut down studio operations a little over two years later. Maureen followed her desire to get out of the city and travelled the breadth of B.C. to find a new spot to settle. She recalls, “It was the ‘back to the land’ time. I wanted to be able to buy a piece of property and not rent, someplace smaller and closer to the wilderness. When I drove into Atlin, that was it. I said, ‘I’m staying!'”
Maureen brought jade carving tools with her to Atlin, along with something new, a Dremel grinder. New World Jade reopened for a time and agreed to carry her beautiful jade birds, which always sold. This lasted for a year, during which time Maureen began experimenting with antler, using jade carving techniques.
Maureen became interested in antler as a medium after observing it carved on the grinding wheel at the artist-run jade carving co-op which sprang up after New World Jade closed.
“I thought it was really interesting stuff. But it stunk when they were working on it. The co-op didn’t have a dust collection system because they were working primarily in Jade which used water on the wheel to control dust. But I thought I would love to try working with antler because there were plenty of antlers in Atiln, on every house or in every yard. One day I noticed a dog gnawing on a huge set of caribou antlers and asked the owner if I could buy them. He laughed and said I could have them. I bought him a case of beer anyway. And that was the start.”
Initially, Maureen carved antler using techniques learned on jade. She held the antler tightly to her body and carved by leaning into a carbide grinding wheel. Maureen found the antler absorbed the water she used to control the dust, swelling, cracking, and taking weeks to dry. After the grinder-shaped antler dried, Maureen added carved detail with a Dremel. Soon she realized that, “it was a lot more pleasurable to be sitting and carving with the Dremel, even though it was dusty. I prefered it to standing and pushing on the grinding wheel, so I packed up the wheels, acquired Foredoms, a band saw and other tools that helped remove water from the carving process altogether.”
Though Maureen may have altered her methods for working in antler, she retained the design aesthetic developed in jade. Maureen cut the antler to create works similarly scaled to her works in jade. She used antler as a medium for design, not as a form to be decorated. And in doing so, she transformed antler carving from craft into fine art.
Maureen Morris’ sculpture is typified by absolutely gorgeous line. According to Maureen, “it’s all about the curves – curves making energy. I like to move them around the carving if I can. Maybe the line starts at the head and travels around the wing and then disappears around the back of the bird. It makes for greater visual appeal. I think, unconsciously, I started carving antler with the same kind of shapes I previously carved jade, using clean curving lines, because I just had one big wheel to work on and couldn’t do tight corners or convoluted shapes. I don’t have to be simple now, but the shapes usually start out that way. I have rarely done a straight line, except for bird beaks and feathers.”
A founding member of the Studio Gallery Association, a collective of contemporary northern artists working in a variety of media, Maureen decided to diversify her designs to accommodate their first major group showing in 2003, which would become known as the ‘Chess Show’. It was to be held in one of the north’s premier public art spaces, the Yukon Art Centre Gallery in Whitehorse. “They asked me how much wall space I would need,” Maureen recalls. “I hadn’t even decided what I was going to do, but knew I wanted to work big because I never had. So I said I wanted a whole wall!”
She relished the challenge of creating an entirely new body of work and so turned from her infinitely variable, imaginary bird and fish forms to try her hand at faces, creating imagined profiles of living chess pieces, complete with crowns, mitres and helmets. The concept was a smashing success and lead to a solo show in 2006 at the same gallery which Maureen dubbed the ‘Headwear, Helmets, Hats and Halos Show’. It was followed a year later in 2007, with profiles inspired by Tarot card imagery for the Studio Gallery’s next major public offering, aptly named ‘The Tarot Show’.
Creating the relief effect on antler was a challenge. Maureen explains, “Working large on a moose antler it’s hard to create the illusion of three dimensions. I never had as much depth as I wanted since the antler was at most half an inch thick. It was difficult but I learned to see ahead, to plan ahead.”
Frustrated when she finds herself bored repeating a design “over and over with little difference”, Maureen likes to “leap in with a new approach, without a preordained idea, just to see where it goes.” Maureen explains, “I like to set fresh sculptural problem-solving tasks for myself.” Lately, Maureen has turned to a store of caribou shovels (the part of their antlers that extend, fan-like, in front of their noses) which she has been saving for years. “I kept these antler pieces because they are perfect and I want to do just the right thing with them, the thing that maximizes the beauty of the antler.” She enthuses, “I’ve been coming up with some different stuff that is really exciting!”
Shane: “Maureen, can you describe a typical day in the studio?”
Maureen: “It depends on what I’m doing. Right now I’m working for myself because I don’t have any orders. When I have orders I work to what people expect. So, this time of the year, I’ll come into the studio and start the fire, look around to see what I have to do, then sit down in this chair, look out across the lake and carry on. What I have a lot of orders, I have to make a whole cross-section of different carvings, usually birds, because that is what the galleries want. I try to give them pieces with different prices, so my carvings are affordable for everybody. I also try to include different shapes so the pieces are interesting to look at on display.”
Shane: “Suppose you have an order for 10 birds, do you work on them simultaneously, or one at a time?”
Maureen: “That depends. Sometimes, when I come across a caribou or moose antler with a beautiful creamy colour, I’ll try to make 4 or 5 birds from it. I’ll work them all at the same time and save the finishing work for a dull day. I have never liked the finishing work. That was one advantage at New World Jade, they hired people to do the finishing. I’d love to have an apprentice to do just that!”
Shane: “Can you tell me a little about your process? How do you work the antler? What tools do you use?”
Maureen: “After looking at the antler, I’ll sketch out the rough outline of the carving, careful to take advantage of interesting shapes in the antler. Then I’ll cut out the rough shape on the band saw, which leaves straight lines, facets and edges, which are then smoothed off on the drum sander.
“The drum sander is a great tool. Not too many carvers seem to know about it. It creates a nice round surface. You push the antler against it and it takes a lot of material off quickly, especially when you’re using a fresh belt. It makes a lot of dust but helps refine the shape of the carving further, rounding it closer to the shape I want. (Yes, I have a dust collection system, but it is still very dusty!)
“I have 3 Foredom Flexible Shaft grinders, one is the heavy duty 1/2HP H Series model and the other two are 1/4HP S Series models. I use the Foredoms to further rough out the shape of the carving.
“For fine detail, I use the NSK Elector (EMax) Micromotor grinder. I have purchased a few of them over the years and it’s my very favourite tool for detail. I can do anything with it! I have experimented with all kinds of surface details over the years: stippling, little dimples, round holes, not to mention the definition of feathers, eyes, beaks, etc. The handpiece tends to fill with dust and eventually the bearings fail and need to be replaced. My partner, Archie, can fix them for me now but I used to have to send them away to be repaired at some expense. But I wouldn’t use any other tool. (All micromotor grinders draw dust into their armatures, eventually resulting in bering failure.)
“Next I’ll use small 6” files to clean up some of the lines. When I want a really sharp line of a feather or bird’s beak that I can’t necessarily get clean enough with the NSK, a file will do the job.
“To create an even surface texture, where I haven’t created a deliberate texture or left the antler in its natural skin, I’ll go over the carving with 100 grit sandpaper. This removes tool marks and scratches.
“My final step is to brush the surface with a short natural bristle. I use either a tooth brush or the brush on the reverse side of a file card. The brush is perfect for removing all of the little antler bits that are left in the cracks as it buffs the antler and gives it a bit of a gleam, just a bit.
“Once the sculpture is finished, it is mounted with screws and glue to a variety of bone or wood stands or wall mounted backgrounds.”
Shane: “How long does a typical carving take to complete?”
Maureen: “Since I can work several carvings at one time, it is a little hard to say, but the smaller carvings can be completed in a day.”
Shane: “How have you marketed your work?”
Maureen: “I never had to look for market and don’t even have a CV. I’ve been lucky because people have approached me. Friends have recommended galleries in such diverse places as Calgary and Colorado. The North End Gallery in Whitehorse has been my main outlet for a long time. I used to sell really well in Skagway, but that community has been hit hard by the downturn in the economy. The little gallery in Atlin usually does pretty well in the summer but it was down in sales this year too. Right now I’m just looking around and think I should get a little more proactive instead of just waiting for things to drop in my lap.”
Shane: “What about pricing your work?”
Maureen: “When I began, I didn’t have anything with which to compare, so I based my pricing on the time that it took me to complete a carving. If I really liked something, the price was bumped a little higher and if I didn’t like something, maybe their was a little ding on it or something, then the price was lower. Everything sold. I priced the little birds at $7 each, remember this was in the 70s, and eventually the prices went up because I couldn’t keep up with the orders. I have been selling my work at current prices for many years without an increase, so I guess I’m still getting away with it!”
Shane: “Have you considered raising the prices further, or have you found a balance with what the market will bear?”
Maureen: “Exactly, I juggle. If I had access to a market with more money, I would make bigger pieces. I make small pieces so that everybody can afford them, with some bigger pieces mixed in. If I could afford it, I would do more experimental stuff or more headwear pieces, but I have a living to make, so… But I like making the little birds, I really enjoy them.”
Shane: “What about commissioned work?”
Maureen: “I don’t particularly like special orders, but sometimes I have to take them. People usually want me to repeat things. Once I made a huge loon, now in the Yukon Permanent Art Collection. Two other people wanted loons just like it. The first one went fine, but the second one took weeks to do because I couldn’t find the right piece of antler. Really, it’s impossible to make two carvings exactly the same in antler, but I know that’s what people want, so I make them as much alike as possible.”
Shane: “Where do you get your antlers?”
Maureen: “Antlers are in plentiful supply in the north. I used to trade a carving for antlers, but now have more antlers than I’ll be able to carve in my natural lifetime. Many years ago Ed Kurshner, a local outfitter, died while on holidays in Thailand. When his estate was sold, a shed full of antlers was put up for auction. I put in a bid and got them all – two full truckloads of moose and caribou antler. I know that Ed would have been happy that I got them because he liked my work. Archie built me a storage shed for the antlers and I have been working with them ever since. I have also bought antlers from other suppliers, particularly when I needed several larger ones for the ‘Headwear’ show.”
Shane: “If you had to do it over again, would you do anything differently?”
Maureen: “Probably try to get better carving technology much earlier on! When I met Archie, he introduced me to the technology I use now. The studio is pretty well set up now. Would I have done anything else? I don’t think so. If I were the same person, I can’t see how I would have made different choices. I like what I’m doing!”
Shane: “Looking back over your career, what are some of the highlights?”
Maureen: “I have enjoyed all my shows, with the possible exception of the ‘Chess’ show. I enjoyed making the pieces and they were well received, but I suffered a ‘heart event’ during the show. My first show was held in the basement of Mac’s bookstore in Whitehorse. It was a huge success which led to more shows when the gallery was moved aboveground to the Sheffield Hotel (now the Westmark Whitehorse). I had a good relationship with the owners, Bill and Val Braden. The highlight, though, has to be my ‘Headwear’ show at the Yukon Arts Centre – that was great!”
It has been 40 years since Maureen began her carving career, 2 years working jade followed by 38 years carving antler. In that time she has perfected her art creating thousands of antler carvings. Carvings that have brought joy, pleasure, and delight to collectors world-wide.
Ruth McCullough is the founding Curator of the Yukon Permanent Art Collection. Now retired, during her tenure she influenced the development and expansion of the visual arts and cultural industries in Yukon and Northern BC. Ruth opines that one of Maureen’s greatest accomplishments has been to firmly establish “antler carving on the art map.”
Neil Graham, a well-known Yukon painter and also a founding member of the Studio Gallery Association, reflects on Maureen’s artistic qualities and character:
“Maureen has been a part of the Studio Gallery Association since its inception in the late 90’s. We have shared many shows together and Maureen always presents with a level of quality and professionalism that elevates our exhibitions. Despite her success and consistency, Maureen displays a modesty and earthiness that is comforting and inspiring. She lives simply, is an accomplished and innovative gardener, and has a beautiful, welcoming home. She has a phenomenal work ethic that rouses us all to greater heights. In collaborative work. Maureen is always involved, always enthusiastic, always a joy to work with. We love her.”
At 67, Maureen shows no sign of slowing down. Her passionate quest for fresh ways to express her love of form continues to drive her forward into new realms of design and technique. When asked what the future holds, Maureen respsonds with a chuckle, “Not retirement, that will never happen! I love the carving. I am good at it now and it is good for me. I’ll never stop carving antler.”
MAUREEN MORRIS – IMAGE GALLERY